What it might take to get UNT to .500 in Todd Dodge's make or break season.
To ensure his return in 2011, Todd Dodge's team must win six games.
Most evaluators see eight games against similar caliber programs (Rice, Army, FIU, FAU, Western Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, and Arkansas State) on UNT's schedule.
The pundits also see four games against markedly better programs (Clemson, Troy, Middle Tennessee, and Kansas State) on that same slate.
The difficult schedule leaves little wiggle room for Dodge and company.
Three requirements must be in place as the season begins for UNT to have a realistic shot at .500.
1) UNT cannot manage another season with an undersized defensive line.
They may have a lot more speed and proven play making ability than in recent years, but they are still a small squad that bears a greater resemblance to a 5A Texas high school team than a college team.
UNT's linebackers are mostly in the 200-220 lb range. Their DBs weigh considerably less.
The team will not be able to consistently stop the run if they roll out another undersized line.
The defensive line's inability to hold their position at the line of scrimmage vs. run blockers has been an ongoing problem for many years.
Even when they hold position, the ends are frequently turned, opening gaping running lanes.
Last year, UNT had a fairly strong linebacking core, but the D-line's inability to anchor greatly neutralized the linebackers' productivity.
This year, the linebackers should be even better, but they won't be any bigger.
If UNT cannot keep opponents from driving Mean Green linemen off the line of scrimmage, wins will be tough to come by.
UNT cannot afford to start two 225 lb defensive ends.
At the end of spring practice, sophomore KC Obi was listed as the first team strong side DE. Sophomore pass rusher Brandon Akpunku was listed as the starting weakside DE.
Clemson will eat UNT alive if we run those two D-ends out there, as will most of UNT's Sun Belt schedule.
Obi is a competent Sun Belt-level run defender on the weak side, especially vs. lighter and weaker left tackles.
Akpunku is an elite pass rusher, and a volatile bucket of gasoline, who will fight anyone at any time, but Obi plays with better technique against the run.
Both players will be good DEs by their senior year, but neither is a full time DE at this point.
There is some hope.
UNT has 3 DE's coming in the fall. The coaching staff seems very much in love with 2 star recruit Michael Miller (6'3" 260 lbs), a DE out of Antelope Valley CC.
They seem to think he might be an underrated steal. Freshman Aaron Bellazin (6'2" 230 lbs) is a plenty tough, three star recruit. Frank Gaines is a (6'1" 250 Lbs) 3 star Juco recruit out of City College of San Fransisco who could also take a starting job.
In addition, sophomore DE LaCrhis Anyiam (6'4" 287), DE Tevinn Cantly (6'4" 301), Ryan Boutwell (6'3" 245) and even senior Sam Owusu-Hemeng (6'2" 242), who was banished to the bench for most of the second half of the season due to an unnamed offense, will be available.
John Webber (6'3" 288 lbs), a former JUCO star DE who has been moved to DT in a maneuver eerily similar to the Eddrick Gilmore debacle that gutted UNT's defense for the first half of last season, would make sense as at least a part-time strong side DE.
Cantly and Boutwell are currently on the second team of the spring depth chart.
I hope the spring depth chart is simply a mirage due to the new DEs not being on campus yet, but the plain facts are UNT needs a lot more size on the field at DE to prevent teams from rolling over them again this year.
UNT cannot afford to sell out their run defense in an attempt to get more speed on the field.
If they do so, there is no chance this team will win 6 games this year.
The defensive tackle spots should be better this year with returning starters and great depth.
This team can't wait several weeks into the season to learn to stop the run. If it takes that long, this staff is as good as fired.
2) Special teams have to be competent.
Last year, only the kickoff return game thrived. UNT had numerous kicks and punts blocked.
That is horrific incompetence. UNT has to break even on special teams this year to win.
With seven new 3 star recruits in the defensive back seven, one would hope that, at minimum, UNT's coverage teams will be dramatically improved. Ultimately, this has to be put on the coaching. Can special teams coordinator Shelton Gandy deliver?
3) The staff needs to convince the players to compete every week.
Last year, UNT conceded the Troy and Alabama games before stepping on the field.
There are no teams on the schedule this year that will be as good as Alabama.
This UNT team will be far more talented than last year's team.
There comes a point when a team needs to man up.
To concede potential upsets to their four toughest opponents before the ball is even snapped is both foolish and weak.
A win in any of those games could be the difference in the staff staying or even UNT making a bowl game.
And they can't play down to competition, as they did vs. Western Kentucky last year.
I see three glaring "trap games," where UNT will likely be favored, but could easily lose if they overlook their opponent like they did Western Kentucky last season.
Strong coaching and senior leadership will be very important in making sure the players play hard in these games.
Without further ado, lets look at the schedule with the idea that UNT addresses these issues.
The media is presenting this like a mismatch of epic proportions. They liken this to the Alabama game last year where UNT was totally over-matched.
Clemson is not Alabama.
Alabama is SEC royalty today and won the freaking national title last year.
UNT played Alabama last year.
UNT was crushed like grapes in a wine factory by Alabama.
UNT knows crushing defeat at the hands of Alabama.
Clemson?...Clemson is no Alabama.
While it isn't unreasonable to compare Clemson to an SEC school, Clemson is more like Ol' Miss or a lesser Georgia. They are certainly a good BCS school, but not a national title contender. The Clemson crowd will be an SEC sized crowd. UNT needs to not be intimidated.
Clemson has been an underachiever for damn near 20 years. For whatever reason, Clemson is slow out of the gate fairly regularly and regularly underestimates it's lightly regarded opponents.
UNT has to be able to stop the run to compete.
UNT's senior DT's Shavod Atkinson and Kelvin Jackson need to hold the line of scrimmage. Both have BCS level talent. They need to play like it and be in good enough shape to play their best for a number of plays. The depth at DT is pretty good and pretty deep.
Incoming 3 star recruits at linebacker have to be ready to compete for starting roles come the fall.
A.J. Penson and Craig Robertson are solid, but we'd be a better team if 3 star JUCO playmaking superstar Brad Graham (6'1" 210) plays to a level where he takes one of their jobs. He looked pretty good in the spring.
The third starting linebacker, Jason Phillips, is a playmaker. I'd love it if 3 star incoming freshman Zack Orr (6'0" 240) showed up ready to take the MLB job. Orr is the son of an NFL player and could earn some PT if his head is on right.
UNT looks shaky vs. the run at the edges. That could change in a heartbeat if incoming players show up ready to challenge for PT.
Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach has to get his tinkering done before this game. UNT has to be able to stop the run with some consistency in game 1.
UNT needs to compete in this game. They need a shot of confidence early that hanging with a good ACC team would provide.
IF UNT can stop the run they have about a 35% chance of pulling the upset. If they cannot, a 50-7 loss is not out of the question.
They have to beleive they have grown into a competent defense by the end of fall practice. It will be disasterous if they enter this game with the idea that they will figure it out during the first few games.
The home opener vs. Rice is a trap game and is a must win for UNT.
Rice was worse than UNT last season, but they re-hired the brilliant David Beaty to be their new offensive coordinator. In 2008, an offense that Beaty played a big part in developing rolled up 77 points on UNT.
This game could become a shootout.
I have a hunch Rice will end up being a slightly below average CUSA team this year. UNT will be a middle of the pack Sun Belt team. If UNT lets Rice hang around, they could be upset.
UNT needs a big game from the defensive line - Rice's OL is considered unproven and suspect - and UNT needs at least one of their 2 coveted 3 star CB recruits to have pushed their way into the starting lineup, if not both of them.
In an ideal world, Steven Ford and D'Andre Wood (the new 3 star CB recruits with 4.4 speed) will show elite coverage skills and take both starting jobs in the fall, but a more likely scenario is that last year's #1 Royce Hill will hold on to his starting job.
Against a team like Rice it doesn't matter who starts, there will be plenty of receivers to cover. UNT's defense need to step up and carry this team to victory.
This is very much a trap game, but it is also a must win. UNT cannot afford to go on the road for game 3 with an 0-2 record in tow. They need this game.
UNT had Army last year in spite of a pretty bad game from Riley Dodge until UNT suffered a blocked FG.
On one hand playing at Army is a tough place to play. On the other hand there is no mystery for the Mean Green as to what Army is going to do, and they handled it quite well last year.
If UNT's defensive staff doesn't linger with goofing around trying to generate a pass rush at the expense of stopping the run like they did for the first half of last season, UNT will have a good shot at winning this game.
Army is very disciplined, but they aren't very fast. UNT could hit them on some deep passes.
Points should again be hard to come by for Army. Last year one of the main problems UNT had was controlling 6'10" WR Alejandro Villanueva. UNT cannot let him be a chain mover again this year.
And there is special teams. If UNT cannot figure out how to block for a field goal, Army could win this on a blocked kick again this year.
This game will tell us if Shelton Gandy's work on special teams will allow UNT to hit 500. If there is a blocked kick, Todd Dodge will need to reshuffle special teams responsibilities to save his season. A good move would be assigning former UCLA special teams coach and current UNT defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach take over the kicking game.
Like the Rice game, UNT is a little better talent-wise but could easily lose this tough road game in front of a large hostile crowd.
On paper, looking at Dodge's past, one would think this is a loss.
And it could be.
Howard Schnellenberger owns Todd Dodge. And this is at Florida Atlantic.
But it could also be that Howard Schnellenberger owned UNT's former offensive coordinator Todd Ford and that UNT DC Deloach never had the talent to compete with FAU's offensive talent.
The talent gap has shrunk signifigantly.
UNT killer Rusty Smith has graduated. The loss of the star QB will hurt FAU a great deal. WR Chris Bonner who ate UNT alive last year is gone as are TE's Jason Harmon, Jamari Grant, and change of pace back william Rose.
UNT is faster in the secondary than they have been in years.
No doubt FAU is still very talented and dangerous. Schnellenberger is still there. Alfred Morris is a great RB. The team still has talent at it's WR slots and has a very talented QB in Jeff Vancamp but, and this is very important, the new talent does not have a history of owning UNT.
This could be a coming out game for UNT, it's defense, and offensive coordinator Mike Canales. The team that will be able to pick up short yardage will probably win this game. This game could establish in the minds of UNT's players that they are a good team.
If things work out, UNT could legitimately be 3-1 after this game and on their way to 500 or better.
Last yeat UNT should have beaten ULL at ULL, but Riley Dodge gave away a lot of points, and UNT's special teams and defense spit the bit.
With apologies to ULL who through good coaching clearly makes a lot of their "luck", it is difficult to imagine UNT collapsing in so many areas again this year.
Neither UNT QB appears likely to give away points to ULL at the rate Riley Dodge did last year.
UNT looks much more talented this year, and ULL may actually be slightly less talented than last year's team, although returning QB Chris Masson is a winner.
There is no such thing as a certain win for a school like UNT, but if UNT plays well in it's early schedule this game should probably be a win off that momentum.
Ah, the weeping wolves of Arkansas State.
The UNT game is always a dogfight for Arkansas State. Steve Roberts is a very underrated coach, but seems to have trouble putting UNT away under Todd Dodge.
This will be the first time Dodge will have the better and more experienced talent. Arkansas State is going to be a much younger team next year. At home in Denton, this too should be a win for UNT.
Expect a very tough game with UNT winning due in part to a home field advantage.
If UNT comes out strong against Clemson and Rice, they could mature into as much as a 5-1 team by this point in the season.
The third game of their homestand is against Florida International. FIU is horribly coached by Larry Christobal, but over the last few years has had better lead talents than UNT and Christobal and staff have owned Todd Dodge's staff.
Last year UNT's defense rolled over allowing FIU 173 yards rushing on over 5 yards a carry. FIU crammed the ball down UNT's throats.
FIU lost backup RB Duante Owens to graduation. Starting RB Kendall Berry was tragically stabbed to death over the off-season. Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden has emerged as FIU's new starting RB.
FIU could be a lot better offensively next season behind transfer QB Wesley Carroll, a former member of the SEC all-freshman team.
FIU generally has a pretty mediocre offense, but their gameplans against UNT usually work quite well. UNT's annual inability to hold position on the line of scrimmage (and stop the run) seems to be a large component of their annual trouble with FIU.
UNT has by neccessity thrown out undersized lines at FIU for years. This year the talent and depth is there for UNT to put out players that won't automatically lose the LOS. Will the coaching staff utilize that talent?
This should be UNT's 6th win if UNT takes care of business, but when does UNT ever do that vs. FIU? I am predicting far too much success for UNT. Karma will play a role. They have to lose this game.
If UNT's coordinators are "too smart by half" failing to take the physical advantages this roster offers or the offense continues to be grossly turnover prone, Dodge and staff could be in trouble by game 6.
No problem, we will pick up win 6 vs. Western Kentucky, right?
Not so fast.
The game at Western Kentucky is another trap game. Last year UNT didn't take them seriously and WKU took it to the Mean Green in a game that wasn't decided until the fourth quarter.
Western Kentucky will be better, but the plain fact is that they are probably 2 years of talent acquisition behind UNT.
UNT should win this game, but WKU treats UNT as their most winnable game each year and gives UNT their best effort.
Additionally WKU has the skeleton of a good team. Junior to be Bobby Rainey is about as solid of a RB as you'll find in the Sun Belt and sophomore to be QB Kawaun Jakes is hugely underrated. If they develop some receivers and a slightly better line (likely), WKU will be able to score on most people.
New Coach Willie Taggart is a pretty good offensive mind who worked under brilliant Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh and developed stud RB Toby Gerhart. It seems likely that the solid WKU offense likely takes another step forward this year.
This game is at Western Kentucky against a team with no fear of UNT and a history of good play against them. WKU maybe winless at this point and may want the game a lot more than UNT.
Even with the kind of excellent start I have discribed, UNT could easily lose focus here, looking ahead to Troy and get upset on the road to go 5-3.
This will not be the Troy of past years. Troy lost their offensive coordinator to Texas Tech, star QB Levi Brown to graduation, and a ton of NFL consideration level talent off the starting defensive unit.
Last year Troy's offense dominated a still struggling UNT defense and their loaded defense ate UNT's finese offense for lunch until they pulled their starters at which point UNT put up some points.
I think Troy will drop to the level of merely a top Sun belt school this year. They still have a tremendous amount to talent and depth, but I think the loss of their offensive leadership will slow down their offense quite a bit. I think their defense will also take a step back with a much less accomplished defensive line.
I think UNT will likely be able to generate some smashmouth play from time to time and this game would be a game where that would really be needed.
UNT will have homefield advantage and a team geared to better compete with Troy, but may very well be coming off an upset that could ultimately cost Dodge and Co their jobs. Where will the players' heads be?
I can see UNT hanging around in this game and actually competing, but I'll believe the players can win it when I see the players not conceding any games before the opening kickoff (ie. MTSU, Troy, Alabama last season). They can win this game if they step on the field thinking they can.
Lets say 5-4 at this point.
MTSU will likewise struggle a bit this year IMO. Their QB Dwight Dasher appears overrated to me. He is a terrific athlete who ran all over UNT last year, but his accuracy appears to come and goes by the game. He looked like a very uninspiring passer vs. UNT last season.
MTSU had a top notch receiving corps last year that made Dasher look pretty good. It appears a little weaker this year with the loss of Chris McClover & Patrick Honeycutt, but the big loss is clearly OC Tony Franklin.
It still looks like a loss at MTSU, but the game last year had become competitive early in the 4th quarter despite the fact UNT spotted MTSU a large early lead with turnovers.
UNT's players are far less intimidated by Middle Tennessee's players than they are by Troy's.
Don't be surprised if it is a competitive game and a narrow UNT loss, so 5-5.
This may be UNT's last shot at keeping Dodge and it should be a very winnable game.
I fully expect ULM to implode this year. I consider their current coach a far lesser coach than their last coach, Charlie Weatherbee.
Weatherbee came into Denton with a much less talented team and his team kicked UNT's butt up and down the field. They played smashmouth football the way it is meant to be played. They rammed the ball down UNT's throat and shut down the UNT running game.
I think ULM had 3-4 win talent last year with a 10 win heart. I can see them falling to last in the Sun Belt this year, but this is the third trap game on UNT's schedule.
Trey Revell is a solid QB, if slightly overrated, and Frank Goodin is a good starting RB, but the graduation of WRs LaGregory Sapp and Darrell McNeal will be huge. ULM was not a big play offense last year and Sapp and McNeal were by far their best big play threats.
It is likely that ULM will be the same kind of team as last year except they won't throw the ball as well, they won't be as confident or well prepared, and their defense won't play quite as well.
It is still a tough matchup for UNT based on style and the fact it will be played in Monroe, a pretty tough place to play. I think UNT will play it like their backs are against the wall and get that 6th win.
Kansas State will either be playing for a bowl or a better bowl, so I do not see UNT being able to defeat them.
If UNT is able to win game number 6 against ULM, I think a very lose UNT team could take the field against Kansas State and hang around, but it probably won't be a UNT win as Kansas State will have more to play for.
And that gets UNT to 6-6.
Don't go to Vegas; Don't call your bookie.
This review assumes the best that realistically can be expected.
This team does have the talent to win.
This season should be the first season where UNT has the upper hand in talent over most of their Sun Belt competition, but we don't know if Dodge's modified staff will be able to properly utilize that talent well enough to win.
Note I did not say "utilize their talent to the best of their ability" - I think they could win 10 games if that occurred.
They have that kind of talent, but teams don't change their spots overnight and the trade off of gutting last year's team of its veteran leadership is that the younger players who played developed bad habits last year that invariably will cost them a couple of games this year.
It is a lot to ask of a team with no history of success to have a fast start. Success with this schedule demands one.
No, I am just looking at things and saying if their staff can just be COMPETENT (which I think they mostly are), the coaching staff should be able to guide this team to 6 wins.
But it is pretty simple to me. Starting from game one -
If UNT can't stop the run,
If UNT again can't deliver competent special teams play,
If UNT 's players don't man up and play like a tough veteran team,
Dodge and Company are gone.