It seems every year in college football, a random, smaller program not-named Boise State makes a run to the top of the polls. Teams like 2004 (and 2008) Utah, 2009 Ball State, 2012 NIU, 2015 Western Michigan, and 2015 Iowa all come to mind. This year, we’ve already seen several Group of Five programs pull off some stunning upsets over the P5, including Old Dominion’s massive victory over Virginia Tech and Troy’s stunner against the Cornhuskers. Both of those have received a lot of deserved attention, but it seems one team that not only upset a Power 5 team but dominated them, hasn’t gotten much thought from the general public.
When North Texas pulled off the stunning (and hilarious) punt return touchdown against Arkansas two weeks ago, the play went viral. It was all over SportsCenter and retweeted en-mass on Twitter. It was also probably shared by your mom on Facebook, where her friends got college football mixed up with the NFL and began to comment about how “unpatriotic those millionaires are”. Regardless, aside from that play becoming instantly famous, the beating that North Texas put on Arkansas was largely ignored. Yes, the Razorbacks are terrible, but a C-USA program with a LOT less funding and recruiting prowess whipped them up and down the field, on the road. A 44-17 win over an SEC team, even a bad one, should raise eyebrows across the college football landscape. Instead, the Mean Green have been largely ignored, this even-despite their 4-0 start.
So to college football fans everywhere I say: start paying attention to North Texas, because they are for real.
The Mean Green, despite having a program for over 100 years, have not been super successful on the football field. Aside from a nice run under Hayden Fry in the 1970s, there has not been much sustainted-success in Denton. North Texas did win four Sun Belt championships from 2001-2012, but ever since moving to Conference USA, that success has not been replicated. That looks like it might all change under third-year head coach Seth Littrell.
Littrell came into a rough situation, taking over a program in 2016 that the previous season had gone 1-11. There was immediate improvement, with a 5-8 year in his first season, which was upped to 9-5 last year. UNT won the C-USA West last season behind the big arm of sophomore quarterback Mason Fine, and despite losing to FAU in the conference title game and dropping the bowl game, it was a huge improvement for the program. This season, Littrell has the Mean Green off to a ferocious 4-0 start with that huge win over Arkansas, along with a dominating victory of Liberty last week.
Now unbeaten starts happen a lot in college football, so what makes it so certain that UNT can sustain this success? The answer is two words: Mason Fine. The now-junior quarterback is a dark-horse Heisman contender according to many college football experts, due to his phenonemal play on the field. So far this year, Fine has passed for ten touchdowns against just one interception, and thrown for over 1300 yards in just four games. The air-raid from Denton has taken over the C-USA, and the 5’11 Fine has completely led the charge under the tuteledge of Littrell. His hot-start this season was preceded buy a fantastic season last year, wher ehe threw for over 4,000 yards with 31 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. Fine currently ranks sixth in the country in passing yards, and 15th in passing touchdowns.
Fine isn’t the only star on the Mean Green. Junior receiver Rivo Bussey Jr. leads the team with 24 receptions and 5 touchdowns, including a three touchdown performance two weeks ago. The Mean have a slew of good receivers aside from Bussey, including Jaylen Guton and Jaelon Darden, each of whom have caught touchdowns this year. Fine is hitting over 63% percent of his passes, and currently have UNT set up with a top ten offense nationally.
So why should people pay attention to North Texas? Because they might make a claim for the G5’s New Year’s Six bid this season. The Mean Green have a frighteningly good offense paired with an adaquate defense, and a weak schedule. They currently sit at 44th in the S&P plus, SB Nation’s preffered rating system, which has been seen to be the most accurate model ranking in college football. That is the highest mark in Conference USA, and the only challenges left on UNT’s schedule appears to be FAU, Louisiana Tech (who they play this Saturday) and Southern Miss. If Littrell’s squad can survive those three contests and not drop any games they’re favored in, then the Mean Green will roll into conference championship weekend undefeated. So yes, UCF, Boise State and USF are rightfully the favorites for the G5’s big bowl bid, keep an eye on North Texas.
And watch Mason Fine wreck the system.