Florida fans probably don’t know all that much about the Gators’ opponent this week, the North Texas Mean Green.
That’s understandable. The Mean Green haven’t exactly been on the national radar while going 5-19 the past two years and struggling near the bottom of Conference USA.
But the program has a new head coach with a strong resume in Seth Littrell, who most recently served as the offensive coordinator for North Carolina and helped direct one of the country’s most explosive offenses last fall.
For more in-depth perspective on North Texas and the matchup this week with the Gators, here is a quick Q&A with Brett Vito, who covers the Mean Green for the Denton Record-Chronicle:
1. How surprising was it to those who follow the program that the coaches went to true freshman quarterback Mason Fine so early in the season?
Vito: If someone had told me back in spring that UNT would start Mason Fine in the second week of the season, I would have said they were nuts. Most UNT fans seemed to feel the same way. Fine played at a tiny Oklahoma high school and is a really small guy at 5-11, 170. The closer UNT got to the season, the more likely Fine playing right away became. Fine played well and won the backup job pretty quickly in fall camp. He just kept getting better and better. When Fine led a touchdown drive late in the waning moments of a loss to SMU, the writing seemed to be on the wall as far as UNT’s long-term plans.
It still was a bit of a surprise to see Fine start against Bethune-Cookman with the Florida game looming just a week later. UNT is going to start Fine against Florida and take the risk of exposing him to hits from an SEC-level defense. There was a school of thought out there that UNT might stick with (graduate transfer Alec) Morris through the Florida game. He is much-better equipped physically to play a team like Florida.
2. Littrell comes in with an impressive resume and looks like a terrific get for North Texas. How was his hiring viewed by the fan base?
Vito: UNT’s fans were pretty excited about Littrell in general. He is a spread-offense guru and has regional ties from his days as a fullback at Oklahoma and an assistant coach at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. UNT played in a run-first system the last five years under Dan McCarney. That system didn’t appeal to Texas high school recruits. Littrell said UNT is going to ‘tee it high and let it fly’ in his introductory press conference. That immediately became a catch phrase and won over a large portion of UNT fans.
3. What effect have the struggles in recent years had on the program, be it in regard to fan support or recruiting, etc.?
Vito: It certainly hasn’t helped matters. UNT has invested a ton of money in the program over the last decade. The school opened Apogee Stadium, its $78 million football stadium, in 2011 and made the move to Conference USA from the Sun Belt in 2013. So far, the payoff has been minimal. UNT beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, but that is the Mean Green’s only bowl season since 2004. Home attendance fell to 13,631 fans a game last year, the lowest total since 1998. Recruiting has always been tough at UNT. The Mean Green’s struggles on the field haven’t helped at all. The bottom line is UNT just needs to win.
4. Who is a player on each side of the ball for North Texas that Florida fans should know entering this game?
Vito: UNT has a few good players on both sides of the ball, despite struggling the last couple of years. The Mean Green’s strength on defense is the safety tandem of Kishawn McClain and James Gray. McClain was UNT’s only preseason all-conference selection. McClain finished with 110 tackles last season, while Gray added 104. McClain has 10 tackles and an interception already, while Gray has 5 tackles and has also forced a fumble.
UNT also has a pretty talented running back in Jeffrey Wilson. He has had a bit of a tough go during the first two years of his career and still (has) been really productive. Wilson has missed five games in his first two seasons combined due to injury and has still managed to rush for 1,054 yards. He came into his junior year determined to stay healthy and is in terrific shape. That work has paid off so far. Wilson has rushed for 169 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games.
5. What is your expectation Saturday night?
Vito: Games against Power 5 teams don’t tend to go well for UNT. The Mean Green are 1-46 all-time against ranked opponents and 3-35 all-time against SEC teams. My expectation is that Florida will jump out to a big lead due to its superior size and athleticism. The Mean Green will make a few plays, but I see the Gators winning by a score of about 41-17.