Summer football questions series — Part I: Can UNT maintain momentum

North Texas built momentum as a program last season with a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The biggest question for UNT heading into the 2014 campaign is if UNT can build on its first winning season since 2004.

June is almost here. And when it comes to UNT sports, that means it’s time to start the off-season questions series on Mean Green football.

Over the next few weeks, when we aren’t tracking down recruits or going over the news of the day, we will examine where UNT stands heading into the 2014 campaign.

UNT is coming off a great year that saw the Mean Green finally break its streak of eight straight losing seasons, win consecutive games for the first time since 2004 and finish 9-4 after beating UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The win was just the third in a bowl game in UNT history.

So where does that leave UNT heading into next season?

That’s the overarching question, and the first in our off-season series.

UNT locked up Dan McCarney with a contract extension after the season was over, keeping the cornerstone of the program in place. There were a few assistants who departed for greener (and less Mean Green-er) pastures, but McCarney replaced Ryan Walters, Mike Nelson and Noah Joseph with capable veterans in Perry Carter, LaMarcus Hicks and Kevin Patrick once some shuffling of the staff was complete.

I don’t see a big change in attitude or direction coming from the coaching staff with McCarney still around.

The big question is if UNT can build on what it accomplished last year after so many of the key players on last season’s team graduated.

UNT lost (deep breath):

QB Derek Thompson, the second-leading passer in school history with 7,447 yards was also the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

LB Zach Orr, one of the best players in recent school history finished with 365 tackles in his career and was a first-team All-C-USA performer as a senior.

WR Brelan Chancellor, the program’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards with 5,503 yards was C-USA’s Special Teams Player of the Year as a senior.

RB Brandin Byrd, the eighth-leading rusher in school history finished his career with 2,202 yards.

S Marcus Trice, was a first-team All-C-USA selection as a senior.

And that’s just for starters.

UNT also lost starters: OT LaChris Anyiam, WR Darnell Smith, TE Drew Miller, DT Richard Abbe, DT Ryan Boutwell, DE Brandon McCoy, DE Aaron Bellazin and LB Will Wright.

I have often been accused of overvaluing experience and underrating the potential of newcomers and highly regarded prospects who sat the bench behind all-conference level players.

That’s fair.

I just have a lot more faith in players to do what they have shown they can do (or something close to it) in the past.

The good news is that UNT does have some talented guys coming back, including running back Antoinne Jimmerson and wide receiver Carlos Harris on the offensive side, and safety Lairamie Lee and cornerback Kenny Buyers on the defensive side. The return of all but one starter on a terrific offensive line is a huge bonus.

Throw in some talented, although completely unproven, guys who will arrive this summer, including wide receivers Tee Goree and Fonzale Davis, and UNT could see things come together in the form of another winning season.

Getting there will be pretty tough with games at Texas and Indiana in nonconference play, not to mention a home game against SMU that will be tougher than people think thrown in.

The bottom line is this — on paper, UNT doesn’t have nearly the team it had last year and it also has a pretty tough road to travel.

One can look at the schedule and start counting games UNT could and arguably should win — Nicholls State and Florida International at home, UTEP and UAB on the road.

Picking out six winnable games isn’t all that hard to do. But how many times does a team win all of its winnable games? Games at Tulane and at home against UTSA were both winnable last year for UNT, which didn’t win either one.

UNT still won nine games. That might be the biggest factor is the Mean Green’s favor when it comes to the question of momentum. UNT doesn’t need to win nine games again or even win eight to keep its momentum going. It just needs to avoid a huge letdown like the one Louisiana Tech suffered while falling from 9-3 in 2012 to 4-8 last year. The Bulldogs are a perfect cautionary tale.

I distinctly remember being told by the UNT faithful that there was no way Louisiana Tech would be as good as it was in 2012 last season after losing so many key players, and they were right. UNT just has to hope it isn’t in a similar spot going into next season.

The 2014 season has all the makings of a rebuilding year on paper for a myriad of reasons — from the challenge of starting an unproven quarterback to losing a whole string of proven playmakers from Chancellor to Trice to Orr to Byrd.

If UNT can get back to a bowl game, there is little doubt the season will be considered a success and the momentum the program established last year will continue.

How UNT comes together in a rebuilding year will determine if the Mean Green can get there.