Here's a big tip ahead of college football's opening weekend: Don't sleep on University of North Texas. For the first time since the team's Hayden Fry-led heyday in the late '70s, the Mean Green are in position to return to national relevance, thanks to Texas' best college quarterback, 17 returning starters and a budding star head coach.
There really isn't any reason for UNT football to have been as bad as it has been for so long. The Denton school is in a football-crazy state, has the sixth-largest enrollment among Texas colleges and sits on fertile recruiting ground. In recent years, the school has started to spend money on the program, too, opening a state-of-the-art stadium in 2011.
Gains on the field have been harder to come by. UNT followed its best season in more than three decades — the Mean Green went 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2013 — with three straight losing seasons. The losing streak came with a big silver lining, however.
After going 1-11 in 2015, UNT hired University of North Carolina head coach Seth Littrell. Littrell, still just 40 years old, provided an immediate bump in recruiting and overhauled previous head coach Dan McCarney's antiquated offensive scheme. In 2016, UNT bumped its win total to five. Last year, the Mean Green went 9-5, winning the Conference USA West Division for the first time with a 7-1 record.
This year, Littrell's team looks set for an even better year. The Mean Green return 17 starters — nine on offense and eight on defense — including quarterback Mason Fine and wide receiver Jalen Guyton, two of the best players in Conference USA.
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In Fine, Littrell has something no other college coach in Texas possesses, a bona fide star at quarterback. Fine is an accurate, prolific passer who'd be playing at a bigger school if he wasn't undersized. As long as he stays healthy, UNT will score enough points to keep up with anyone on its schedule.
Fine, Guyton and the rest of UNT's roster won't have any time to ease into that schedule, either. Saturday night, the Mean Green open the season with local rival SMU in Denton. UNT is a small favorite against the Ponies, but SMU has won three straight games between the teams. UNT's defense, which gave up 35 points per game as the Mean Green's weak link in 2017, needs to show that it can step up in the face of raised expectations.
After taking on SMU, UNT gets what should be an easy contest against Incarnate Word in Week 2. Then comes the chance for the team to truly put itself on the map. UNT goes on the road to Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Sept. 15 to take on the University of Arkansas, its first Southeastern Conference opponent since Florida in 2016. While the Mean Green will come into the game as underdogs, they have the talent to beat the Razorbacks. Doing so would be a program-defining win for Littrell and his players, unlocking the door to a season that could change UNT's entire football trajectory.