Monday, August 31, 2009

2009 Preview: North Texas Mean Green

I'll have my season preview for the Cougars up in a few days, but right now it's time to devote some attention to the other of this blog's two namesakes.

Going into the 2009 season, the good news for North Texas fans is, well, things can't get much worse from last year's 1-11 campaign. Last season was without a doubt one of the worst and most disappointing in Mean Green history. The team suffered several blowout losses - only one loss was by less than ten points - and its one win was against a team that was not considered a full member of the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision last season.

There was hope, going into 2008, that the Mean Green could build upon what had been a prolific and entertaining spread offense in 2007, as well as an improvement in the defense engineered by the return of coordinator Gary DeLoach, to improve on 2007's 2-10 campaign. Instead, the team took a step backwards on both sides of the ball. The offense, which scored 24.8 points per game in 2007, managed 20.0 points per game in 2008 - 102nd in the 119-team Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring - and turned the ball over 33 times. The defense, as bad as it was in 2007, was even worse in 2008, surrendering an a cringe-inducing 47.6 points per game and ranking dead last in the FBS in both total defense and scoring defense. Special teams were a sore spot as well, as the team finished 111th in punt returns and 114th in kickoff returns.

I saw North Texas in person once last season, when they came to Houston to play Rice. I went to Rice Stadium expecting to see a high-scoring shootout between two prolific offenses, and early in the second quarter, with Rice leading 28-20, it appeared that my expectations would be met. But then the Mean Green fell apart and the Owls ran off 49 unanswered points in route to an ugly 77-20 blowout. Quarterback Giovanni Vizza threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, UNT special teams missed an extra point and a field goal and muffed a kickoff reception, and the North Texas defense simply had no answer for the Owls' passing and receiving combo of Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard. It was clear at that point that the Mean Green were in for a frustrating season.

Indeed, the best thing that can be said for the 2008 season is that it is over. All that the Eagles, led by third-year head coach Todd Dodge, can do now is shake off their disappointment from last year and resolve not to let such a disaster happen again in 2009.

There will be some changes his fall, most notably behind center. Coming off a disappointing year and realizing that he was in competition for the starting job with the coach's son, Giovanni Vizza saw the writing on the wall and transferred out of North Texas. The task of quarterbacking this team now falls upon Riley Dodge, who is familiar with his father's offense from his time at Southlake Carroll High School. The problem with Dodge is that he's very inexperienced at this level. He spent some time playing at receiver and quarterback last season before being suffering an injury, which garnered him a medical redshirt. If the Mean Green are to have any success at all this fall, Riley Dodge is going to have to adjust to the college game, and do so quickly.

It doesn't help matters that the offense also lost one of its biggest weapons last season, receiver Casey Fitzgerald, to graduation. In fact, there was a great deal of turnover throughout the receiving corps, and a lot of newcomers will be counted upon to catch Dodge's passes this fall. However, the team retains a potent weapon in senior running back Cam Montgomery, who rushed for 928 yards and nine touchdowns last year. His backup, Lance Dunbar, also proved to be capable last season before he was sidelined with an injury. For all of the importance that the spread offense puts on the pass, the lack of experience behind center as well as the receiving corps as well as the strength of the running game suggests that the Mean Green are probably going to rely heavily on the ground game for at least the first portion of the season. This might be a good thing, as it has the potential to eat up clock and keep the porous UNT defense off the field. The offense can take solace in the fact that the offensive line was one of the few areas of improvement last season and returns experienced and intact. They'll be needed to create holes for the running game as well as protect the young quarterback behind them.

The fact that the team is returning nine starters on defense would normally be a good thing. However, given how bad the defense was last season, that may not be the case. Fortunately, the Mean Green defense is not entirely bereft of talent: lineman Eddrick Gilmore and linebackers Tobe Nwigwe (111 tackles and three interceptions last season) and Craig Robertson all had respectable seasons last year. The linebacking corps appears to be solid, and the secondary, which lacked any help in the form of a pass rush, at least showed improvement over the course of the season. The biggest problem is a relatively inexperienced defensive line that could not stop the run and could only manage 11 sacks all last season. They have to get better if North Texas is going to have any chance this fall.

New special teams coach Shelton Gandy has his work cut out for him. Last year, this portion of the Mean Green's game was abysmal: it made only 12 of 17 field goal attempts, gave up an average of 13.1 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns, gave up an average of 31 (!) yards and three touchdowns on kickoff returns, and did not manage a robust return game themselves. At this point, any improvement on special teams would be welcome.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the national sports media does not expect a lot from North Texas this fall. foresees a three-win season for the Eagles, while, whose Congrove Computer algorithm has accurately predicted UNT's season record eight out of the last fourteen years, expects another 2-10 campaign. The New York Times is also on record as expecting a 2-10 campaign. Sports Illustrated ranks UNT 119th out of 120 FBS teams (ahead of FBS newcomer Western Kentucky, who was the only team UNT beat last season) and foresees a 2-10 season for the Mean Green as well, good enough for eighth place in the nine-team Sun Belt Conference. CBS Sports concurs with that projected placement. Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings put North Texas 165th in all of Division I and dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision; his numbers would imply that a winless season is in store for UNT.

So what do Todd Dodge, his staff and his players need to do in order to best these bleak predictions and improve on last year's dismal campaign? Well, just about everything. On offense, the team needs to improve its scoring efficiency: with the defense as bad as it is, an average of 20 points per game just isn't going to cut it. Cam Montgomery and Lance Dunbar, as solid as they are, cannot do this by themselves. Riley Dodge and the receiving corps, as inexperienced as they all might be, need to take pressure off the running game by getting the ball down the field and into the endzone. The defense is still going to give up a lot of points, but if they can be more successful stopping the run and mounting a halfway-effective pass rush, both things they did not do with any consistency last season, they can at least keep games close and give their offense a chance to put enough points of their own on the scoreboard to win. Another thing the team as a whole needs to do is improve on a turnover margin that was 116th in the nation last year. That means limiting turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and forcing more turnovers on defense. Better special teams are a must, as well.

These are all things easier said than done, however, and if the team does not improve this fall then the fate of head coach Todd Dodge, a high school coaching legend at Southlake Carroll who came to Denton amidst high hopes and great fanfare, will likely become an issue. UNT Athletics Director Rick Villarreal would have a tough decision to make in that situation, especially due to the fact the Dodge will still have two years remaining on his contract after this season.

For everybody's sake, let's hope that it doesn't come to that. Aside from a trip to Alabama, the Mean Green do not face a particularly onerous schedule in 2009: there are no back-to-back road games and key Sun Belt foes Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic come to Denton. If Riley Dodge can grow into his role and lead the offense to greater productivity, and if the defense can at the very least not be as bad as they were last year (and let's face it: there's no place to go but up), then there will be definite hope for the future of the Dodgeball era. It's too much to expect the Mean Green to put together a winning season in 2009, but if the team can manage at least three wins and climb out of the cellar of various offensive, defensive and special teams statistical categories, then the season will be fairly considered a success.

Harry's take on the upcoming season at is worth a read as well.

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