Since Todd Dodge took over as head coach three seasons ago, the Mean Green have won exactly five games. That's going to have to change this season, lest the high school coaching legend be out of a job. In 2010, the choice is simple for North Texas: either win some games and go into 2011 (and a brand-new football stadium) with some momentum, or continue to lose and be forced start all over from scratch with a new coaching staff.
When North Texas opened last season with a solid 20-10 win at Bowling Green, it looked like 2009 might be a good year after all. However, the following week the team suffered a demoralizing 30-31 loss at home to the Ohio Bobcats and then went on the road to be drubbed by eventually national champion Alabama, 7-53. The Mean Green would then go on to lose 8 out of their last 9 games, their lone victory coming in a 68-49 shootout over Western Kentucky.
But even in such disappointment, there was a bright spot: the Mean Green lost six of those ten defeats by a margin of a touchdown or less. The same cannot be said for the dismal 2008 season, wherein of the 11 games North Texas lost only two were within a single-digit margin. If the team can turn what were close losses last season into close wins this season, they will be on their way to recovery.
Offense wasn't the problem for North Texas last year. The 408.67 yards per game was good enough for 36th in the nation in total offense, and the Mean Green ground attack ranked 28th in the nation at 185.25 ground yards per game. The North Texas passing attack wasn't bad, either; their 223.42 passing yads per game put them in the top half of the nation's 120 FBS teams at #51. And the Mean Green offensive line can be especially proud of their abilities to protect the passer: by allowing exactly one sack per game, they were tied for tenth-best in the nation. One area to work on in 2010 is scoring efficiency; UNT's 26.58 points per game were only good for 63rd in the nation in scoring offense.
The offense should be okay in 2010. Riley Dodge suffered an arm injury last season that ended his days as quarterback; he moves to wide receiver this season and Nathan Tune steps in to assume the role behind center. More importantly to the Mean Green is the return of Lance Dunbar, who was the 14th-best rusher in the nation last year, amassing a very impressive 6.89 yards per carry. Plenty of veterans return to the offensive line and the receiving corps as well. The biggest addition to the offense is a full-time offensive coordinator; Dodge has handed over playcalling duties to former South Florida assistant Mike Canales.
If the offense performed admirably in 2010, however, the defense was a different story (hmmm.. sounds like another Texas team I'm familiar with). The North Texas defense held their opponents to 412.33 yards per game (97th in that category) and 35.58 points per game (112th in that statistic). The squad was actually halfway decent in defending against the pass - they allowed 216.75 yards through the air, which is good enough for 54th in the nation - but fared rather poorly against the run: the 195.58 yards per game put them at 104th in the nation in rushing defense.
If North Texas is to improve in 2010, better defense against the run is a must. More backfield penetration is crucial as well; North Texas came in 116th in the nation in sacks recorded and 98th in the nation in tackles per loss. Is that possible, especially with the loss of key linebackers Tobe Nwigwe and Kylie Hill? The defense returns several starters, including senior LB Craig Robertson (who led the team in tackles last season) and sophomore DL Brandon Akpunku (who led the team in sacks), and a handful of JUCO transfers at the DL and LB positions are expected to provide immediate assistance as well. Given the narrow margins of defeat last season, it might not take much - a few runs stuffed here, another couple of sacks there - to turn some close Ls into close Ws this season.
The Mean Green's schedule is favorable. After they get the rent-a-win game at Clemson out of the way, they have winnable non-conference games against Rice and Army before easing into a conference slate that features three consecutive home games in October. Troy at home is going to be tough, however, and Middle Tennessee on the road is going to be really tough. And what's with the season-ending contest against Kansas State? All things said, contending for the Sun Belt conference title is probably not as big a priority for North Texas as is simply getting some wins under its belt. With this schedule they can do so.
Some in the national media expect some improvement from the Mean Green this fall. Sports Illustrated predicts a 4-8 campaign for UNT, while SouthernCollegeSports.com foresees a 6-6 record for the guys in green. NBC doesn't expect the Mean Green to do any better than 8th in the 9-team Sun Belt this fall, but CBS's three college football sportswriters wildly differ as to UNT's in-conference success. The computer rankings are less optimistic; CollegeFootballPoll.com (which has accurately predicted UNT's record each of the last three seasons) predicts a 3-9 record for the Mean Green, while Sagarin's preseason rating of 51.60 for North Texas implies an 0-fer season.
Obviously, a winless season would be a disaster for the Mean Green and would cost Todd Dodge his job, and given how unreliable Sagarin is at the beginning of the season I don't expect that to happen. But how many wins does Dodge actually need in order to return next season? While it's probably too much to expect North Texas to win the Sun Belt or go to a bowl this year, would a .500 season - a four-win improvement over 2009 - be enough? Would five wins even be acceptable, or is a losing record of any kind simply out of the question?
That's to be determined. What is for certain is this: after taking a step backward from 2007 to 2008, North Texas took a small step forward in 2009. They need to take a larger step forward in 2010.
Pre-Snap Read and CollegeFootballNews.com have 2010 Mean Green previews worth reading as well.