North Texas Daily

Gridiron Analysis: Four football games to mark your calendar for next fall

Gridiron Analysis: Four football games to mark your calendar for next fall

Gridiron Analysis: Four football games to mark your calendar for next fall
January 27
23:13 2021

North Texas football (4-6, 3-4 Conference USA last season) released its 2021 schedule on Wednesday, setting the stage for a critical season for head coach Seth Littrell and Co.

After posting a 5-8 record in 2016, the Mean Green had back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018 under Littrell. The last two seasons have not been so successful, however, featuring consecutive losing records of 4-8 in 2019 and 4-6 in 2020.

Even though North Texas made a bowl game last season due to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mean Green were utterly embarrassed in a 56-28 loss to Appalachian State. Their defense was particularly exposed in giving up 636 total yards, including 500 on the ground, highlighting the team’s season-long deficiencies on that side of the ball.

Losing senior wideout Jaelon Darden to the NFL Draft will be difficult to overcome offensively, but there is still reason for optimism when looking ahead to the 2021 season. North Texas looked to address its defensive challenges by hiring a new and experienced defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett and is looking to replace several other defensive coaches.

With lots of young talent on the roster now having a year more of experience — including 66 combined freshmen and sophomores on the current roster — a big improvement could be in store in 2021. A few additions via the transfer portal may still be in the cards as well.

While there are still plenty of unknowns for the 2021 squad, its schedule provides a reason for optimism and a look ahead at several exciting matchups.

No. 1: Sept. 11 @ Southern Methodist University

After what will likely amount to a tune-up game against Northwestern State University, North Texas will travel down I-35 to face Metroplex rival Southern Methodist University (7-3, 4-3 American Athletic Conference) last season.

This is always an exciting rivalry match to watch, and North Texas will be out for revenge in 2021 after losing to the SMU Mustangs 65-35 in Denton last season. The matchup has not been much of a rivalry lately with North Texas winning just one of the last six meetings, but some key losses for the Mustangs combined with more experience for the Mean Green could make this one interesting.

With starting quarterback Shane Buechele departing for the NFL Draft, it will no doubt be interesting to see how head coach Sonny Dykes fills the quarterback position. Buechele led some high-powered SMU offenses over the last two seasons, so how Oklahoma transfer and heir apparent Tanner Mordecai performs at the quarterback spot will be a key factor in the matchup.

SMU also returns four of its six leading receivers from last season, in addition to its leading rusher in running back Ulysses Bentley IV, giving the Mustangs’ quarterback plenty of weapons to work with. If North Texas’ offense is high-scoring again (34.4 points per game last season) and the defense improves under Bennett, this could be a close and fun game in the Mean Green’s first true test of the season.

No. 2: Sept. 18 vs. University of Alabama-Birmingham

After what should be a tough test against rival SMU, North Texas will begin its C-USA slate against the defending C-USA champion University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers (6-3, 3-1 C-USA) in Denton. Talk about starting the slate conference games off with a bang.

North Texas was scheduled to face UAB on Nov. 14 of last season before the game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the Blazers program. The cancellation may have been for the best given North Texas’ struggles last season, but this game will be an early measuring stick for the Mean Green regardless.

UAB was No. 3 in rushing yards in C-USA last season and while they will lose leading rusher Spencer Brown to the NFL Draft, their No. 2 and 3 running backs are likely returners in junior Jermaine Brown Jr. and sophomore Dewayne McBride. Another key to the run game, four senior offensive linemen will return including two First Team All-Conference players in right tackle Sidney Wells and left guard/left tackle Colby Ragland. How North Texas’ run defense (269.2 rushing yards allowed per game last season) holds up against the Blazers could be an early indicator of the unit’s improvement, or lack thereof.

The defense was also a strong suit for the Blazers last season, who finished No. 1 in passing yards allowed, No. 3 in rushing yards allowed and No. 4 in passing yards allowed in C-USA. If that unit — which returns four seniors who received All-Conference honors — is able to slow North Texas’ offense down, it could be a long game for the Mean Green.

No. 3: Oct. 23 vs. Liberty University

To casual fans, a matchup with FBS-Independent school Liberty (10-1 last season) might seem like a mere tune-up game for the Mean Green and an easy win. In reality, the Liberty Flames look to be one of North Texas’ toughest opponents all season.

Third-year head coach Hugh Freeze led the Flames to eight wins in each of his first two seasons with the program. Last season, the team rose to No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll of the season after beating then-undefeated Coastal Carolina University (No. 12 in the final AP Poll) 37-34 in the Cure Bowl. Looking at its 2021 squad, the Flames will return 16 fifth-year seniors and 10 out of 11 starters on both sides of the ball, setting them up for success next season as well.

Liberty boasted a prolific offense last season which averaged 38.2 points per game and nearly 500 yards per game (482.7). Assuming dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis (2,260 passing yards, 944 rushing yards and 34 total touchdowns) returns, he will pair with senior running back Joshua Mack (797 rushing yards) to lead what will likely be another high-powered offense.

This game will be one of the toughest tests of the season for North Texas’ defense and could help demonstrate their improvement. I would anticipate a high-scoring game, however, making this one an exciting matchup to witness in Denton.

No. 4: Nov. 27 vs. The University of Texas-San Antonio

After losing to the University of Texas San Antonio (7-5, 5-2 C-USA) in a 49-17 blowout in San Antonio last season, North Texas will look to perform much better against the Roadrunners in its 2021 regular-season finale.

Under second-year head coach Jeff Traylor, UTSA looks to be a team on the rise in C-USA with its two conference losses last season coming to conference champion UAB and Florida Atlantic (5-4, 4-2 C-USA). Demonstrating this improvement, the Roadrunners took a tough 31-24 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the First Responder Bowl, a team that finished the season ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll.

In facing yet another opponent with a strong running game, North Texas will have its hands full trying to stop last season’s C-USA Offensive Player of the Year in sophomore running back Sincere McCormick (1,467 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns). UTSA also had three offensive linemen named Second Team All-Conference last season, so those players will provide a big boost in the running game if they return.

McCormick ran for a career-high 251 yards and scored two touchdowns in UTSA’s win over the Mean Green last season, but he is not the team’s only threat on the ground. Quarterback Frank Harris was the team’s second-leading rusher, totaling 528 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. If Harris continues to improve as a passer too, UTSA’s offense will be even tougher to deal with, but either way, it will provide both a huge challenge and an opportunity for the Mean Green to showcase their defense’s improvement.

Featured Image: Mean Green players celebrate after scoring a touchdown during the third-quarter against Charlotte on Oct. 10, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas

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John Fields

John Fields

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