UNT’s 2016 football schedule is out, and it’s tough

New North Texas coach Seth Littrell will face a tough schedule in his first season that includes a game at Florida and showdown with Conference USA East Division powers Marshall, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

New North Texas coach Seth Littrell will face a tough schedule in his first season that includes a game at Florida and showdown with Conference USA East Division powers Marshall, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas 2016 schedule

Date Opponent
Sept. 3 SMU
Sept. 10 Bethune-Cookman
Sept. 17 at Florida
Sept. 24 at Rice
Oct. 1 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 8 Marshall
Oct. 22 at Army
Oct. 29 at Texas-San Antonio
Nov. 5 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 12 at Western Kentucky
Nov. 19 Southern Miss
Nov. 26 at UTEP

Conference USA released its full 2016 football schedule today, which gives us a chance to look at North Texas slate.

The big question in the last few weeks was what the Mean Green’s crossover games against teams from C-USA’s East Division would be. UNT was dealt the tough hand of having to play Marshall, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee last season.

All three of those teams played in bowl games in 2015. Marshall and WKU both won, knocking off UConn and South Florida, respectively. MTSU lost to Western Michigan.

UNT is in the same boat this year with games against those same teams. The sites just flipped.

UNT lost to all three of those teams last year by a combined score of 126-48.

The good news is that UNT has six home games after having just five last season.

UNT also stuck with the format it has followed for scheduling in nonconference play. The games have been in place for a long time and are — the Mean Green’s annual showdown with rival SMU, a body bag/opportunity game at Florida, an FCS team for what should be a sure home win against Bethune-Cookman and a game against another lower level team in the FBS ranks in Army.

All and all, it’s not a terrible schedule.

Here are a few thoughts …

1. UNT had better make some hay early

UNT will open against SMU at home. The Mean Green beat the Mustangs 43-6 the last time the teams met at Apogee Stadium back in 2014. There were plenty of games UNT could point to last season as the juncture at which things really started to go south in a 1-11 season. Being beaten soundly by the Mustangs 31-13 in Dallas is among them. UNT could really do itself a favor by opening with a win over the Mustangs and then going 2-0 with a win over Bethune-Cookman. It’s an attainable goal.

2. The end of the season will be tough

UNT will face Louisiana Tech, travel to WKU, host Southern Miss and then travel to UTEP to close the season. LA Tech is coming off a 9-4 season and win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl. The Hilltoppers and Golden Eagles are expected to be two of the top teams in C-USA this season and road games are never easy, especially not to El Paso at the end of the year. That is a tough stretch for the Mean Green.

3. At least UNT’s bye is well timed

UNT had a bye in the opening week of the season and then played 12 straight games last year. That brutal schedule caught up with the Mean Green late in the year when UNT seemed to run out of gas. UNT will get a break after tough home games against MTSU and Marshall before a trip to Army on Oct. 22. UNT will need the break at that point, especially considering the Mean Green must travel to rival Texas-San Antonio the week after their game against the Black Knights.

Chalk talk: Southern Miss at UNT

North Texas guard J-Mychal Reese and the Mean Green will host Southern Miss tonight at the Super Pit. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas guard J-Mychal Reese and the Mean Green will host Southern Miss tonight at the Super Pit. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

Southern Miss at UNT

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Super Pit, Denton

Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1

TV: American Sports Network

Records: North Texas 7-14, 2-6 C-USA; Southern Miss 7-12, 4-4

Last game: Rice 95, UNT 87; Southern Miss 86, Texas-San Antonio 70

Projected UNT starting lineup:

PG: J-Mychal Reese, 6-2, Jr. — Reesse finished just two points off his season high when he scored 23 in UNT’s loss to Rice. The junior is averaging 15.0 points a game and has been one of the Mean Green’s most consistent players all season.

SG: Ja’Michael Brown, 6-1, Fr. — Brown bounced back from a tough game in UNT’s loss to UAB on Jan. 23 that saw him go scoreless by tallying 10 points in the Mean Green’s loss to Rice. Brown hit a pair of 3s and is now averaging 8.3 points a game.

SF: Deckie Johnson, 6-4 Jr. — Johnson scored in double figures for the fifth straight time when he posted 10 points in UNT’s loss to Rice, but struggled from 3-point range. Johnson went just 2-for-9 from behind the arc against the Owls. He is averaging 14.1 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.

F: Jeremy Combs, 6-7, So. — Combs posted a monster game in UNT’s loss to Rice, finishing with 25 points and 13 rebounds for his seventh straight double-double.  The sophomore is averaging 15.6 points and 10.7 rebounds a game

F: Eric Katenda, 6-9 Sr. — Katenda scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in UNT’s loss to Rice in one of his better games of the season. He has started six straight games and is averaging 6.3 points and 3.2 rebounds a game.

Scouting Southern Miss:

Southern Miss is on a roll after beating UTEP and UTSA in its last two games. The Golden Eagles are led by the guard tandem of Kourtlin Jackson and Khari Price, who are averaging 12.0 and 10.3 points a game, respectively. Southern Miss is shooting 42.6 percent (26 of 61) from 3-point range in its last two games.

Who’s hot:

Combs is playing as well as just about anyone in Conference USA at this point in the season. He is receiving a lot of attention defensively, but is still scoring at a high rate.

What you need to know:

UNT’s season is heading downhill fast. The Mean Green have lost five straight and are just a half game out of last place in the C-USA standings at 2-6. Only UTSA is sitting below UNT at 2-7.

The Mean Green need to get something going quickly if they hope to avoid a brutal first-round matchup in the conference tournament.  Fortunately for UNT every team in the league qualifies for the event this year.

UNT is expected to get a boost today with the return of  Rickey Brice Jr. from a concussion he suffered in practice. The freshman center has been a key part of UNT’s bench that has been MIA for the last few weeks. UNT’s reserves have scored just 18 points in the Mean Green’s last four games combined.

Combs will have a favorable matchup today against a smaller Southern Miss front line that features 6-7 forwards Raheem Watts and Quinton Campbell. When Combs struggles, it’s usually against bigger players.

The key for UNT will be to get someone other than Combs and Reese contributing on the offensive end.

UNT prides itself on playing solid defense, but hasn’t been able to stop anyone of late. The Mean Green have allowed an average of 87.4 points a game during their five-game losing streak.

A look at five potential impact newcomers for UNT

Former Alabama quarterback Alec Morris is one of the key players in North Texas' 2016 recruiting class (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

Former Alabama quarterback Alec Morris is one of the key players in North Texas’ 2016 recruiting class (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

National signing day is in the books for North Texas. New coach Seth Littrell had to work quickly after arriving at UNT in late December and ended up landing a recruiting class that ranked 10th in Conference USA.

Here is last night’s blog wrap-up, yesterday’s lead story on UNT landing a group of transfers who will be vital to next season’s team, yesterday’s notebook that leads with a look at UNT’s quarterback situation and a link to the bios of each member of the class.

But just who are the players who have the best chance of making an impact next season? The following is a look:

Alec Morris, Allen/Alabama, QB, 6-3, 235

Morris will be given every opportunity to win the starting quarterback job at UNT as a fifth-year senior transfer after spending four seasons as a backup at Alabama. The former Allen standout is a good fit for new head coach Seth Littrell’s passing offense. Morris will be the next in a growing line of players to try to fill the void at quarterback that has existed ever since Derek Thompson graduated after leading UNT to a win over UNLV in the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl. Morris has barely played since leaving Allen and will need to knock the rust off and show that he can run the Mean Green’s offense in spring practice.

William Johnson, Arizona Western, LB, 6-3, 220

UNT struggled at linebacker last season and turned to Johnson in the hope that he can upgrade the Mean Green’s production at the position. Johnson is the highest rated player in UNT’s class and was committed to Nebraska and then UAB earlier in the recruiting cycle. He should be a Day 1 starter, even though he won’t arrive at UNT until this fall.

Cody Hayes, Navarro College, OL, 6-5, 300

Hayes was a highly recruited player who visited both Houston and Louisiana Tech before signing with UNT. He began his career at Texas Tech before transferring to Navarro. UNT lost two starters on its offensive line to graduation. Hayes seems like a good bet to move into the lineup.

T.J. Henson, Trinity Valley CC, OL, 6-5, 305

Henson is another player who could move into one of the open spots on UNT’s offensive line. The former Plano East standout enjoyed a tremendous two-year career at Trinity Valley and is a midterm transfer. Henson will have the benefit of going through spring practice.

Joshua Wheeler, Tyler JC, DE, 6-3, 255

Wheeler finished third nationally among junior college players with 16 sacks last season. Jarrian Roberts led UNT with 6.5 sacks in 2015, but was the only Mean Green player who finished with more than 3.0. Wheeler will give UNT another option at defensive end and hopefully help the Mean Green improve.

Signing day wrap-up

Another signing day is in the books for North Texas.

This year was a wild ride from the beginning under one staff to the end under another directed by Seth Littrell.

Bottom line — UNT has to be pretty happy with the way it came out considering all the obstacles that stood in the Mean Green’s way. To review …

– Littrell rolled into town in early December and had essentially two months to put an entire class together after starting nearly from scratch.

– UNT lost one of the better recruiters on staff right in the thick of things in defensive line coach Kevin Patrick, who Littrell retained for a short time before Patrick pulled a “Jeffersons” on UNT and moved on up to Texas Tech.

– Oh, and Littrell had to deal with the albatross that is 10 losing seasons in the last 11 and a 1-11 finish last year while trying to sell recruits on coming to UNT.

UNT’s staff did a great job of selling hope. That was the overriding theme of my lead story in tomorrow’s paper.

Don’t think that recruits didn’t notice that Littrell posted on his Twitter account that he believes UNT will be a consistent bowl team from here on out. They did. Defensive tackle Bryce English said so.

UNT had some pretty big wins this year, including landing linebackers William Johnson and La’Darius Hamilton, running back Nic Smith, defensive end Joshua Wheeler and offensive lineman Cody Hayes.

The Mean Green lost a few prospects along the way as well.

When it all shook out, UNT ended up 10th in 247 Sports’ Conference USA rankings and 108th nationally.

That’s better than anyone could have reasonably hoped for.

UNT pushed a lot of chips to the middle of the table on short-term players, which was an interesting move. New coaches often spend nearly all of their time and effort on long-term high school players.

UNT grabbed a one-year quarterback in Alabama transfer Alec Morris, two junior college offensive linemen and five junior college players on defense.

The Mean Green really need to hit on a high percentage of those players. Miss on too many and there won’t be a whole lot of long-term developmental prospects behind them to fall back on.

The bottom line is UNT just needs to win.

That’s true with any new staff.

It’s easy to sell hope and something new starting out. The sledding gets a whole lot tougher if the loses start to pile up.

As far as Conference USA goes, the big winners were Marshall, UAB and Louisiana Tech. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that UAB would have the best class because it was going to be a huge class.

UAB has close to 40 players arriving and finished second only to surprise winner Marshall, which hit a home run when it landed Jaquan Yulee, the ninth rated inside linebacker in the class and a one-time Alabama commitment.

Louisiana Tech also made out like a bandit and finished with the league’s third-rated class.

The Bulldogs have been a consistent winner over the last several years.

Keenen Johnson follows through, signs with Tulsa

North Texas’ on-again, off-again pursuit of Alto athlete Keenen Johnson officially came to an end today when he signed with Tulsa.

Johnson was committed to Tulsa, backed out, visited both schools and then signed with the Golden Hurricane.

Johnson was one of the top players committed to UNT for a while before he changed his mind.

Teams win some and lose some in recruiting.

UNT ended up losing out on Johnson to a key regional rival.

UNT lands linebacker La’Darius Hamilton

North Texas has landed linebacker La’Darius Hamilton of Corrigan-Camden.

Hamilton originally committed to Texas State, but backed out of that pledge. He continued to consider Texas State, McNeese State and UNT.

The Mean Green landed Hamilton at the end in what was UNT’s second big-win on national signing day.

Hamilton is a three-star prospect. He could end up playing linebacker or defensive end on the college level.

UNT picked up a signing day commitment from Navarro JC offensive lineman Cody Hayes earlier in the day.

QB Mason Fine passed on OU walk-on offer to sign with UNT

Record-setting Oklahoma quarterback Mason Fine passed on an offer to be a preferred walk-on at Oklahoma to sign with North Texas, according to a report in the Tulsa World.

Fine was offered scholarships by a host of Division II schools. UNT was the only FBS program to offer him a full ride, despite the fact he was one of the more prolific passers in Oklahoma high school history.

Fine threw for more than 13,000 yards and 166 touchdowns in high school. He is only 5-10 3/4, which hurt his stock in recruiting.

UNT lands one late in Cody Hayes

There are always a few surprises on national signing day.

North Texas unveiled one today — and it was a big one.

Cody Hayes, an offensive lineman out of Navarro College, has signed with the Mean Green.

Hayes visited key Conference USA rival Louisiana Tech and Houston before signing with the Mean Green.

Hayes originally signed with Texas Tech before ending up in junior college.

He is rated as a three-star prospect by 247 Sports and could start immediately next season for the Mean Green.

UNT lost starting guard Micah Thompson and left tackle Michael Banogu to graduation after last season.

Hayes should slide into one of those spots.

Signing day primer

Tomorrow is the big day. I would argue the biggest day of the year in college football.

That would be national signing day.

College athletics is about players, and North Texas will sign the players it will depend on for the next several years tomorrow.

UNT had to work with a short clock this time around after hiring Seth Littrell to take over the program in early December.

Littrell and his staff have done a nice job making up for lost time.

So where does UNT stand?

Here’s a look …

UNT could finish among the top 10 classes in Conference USA this season, which would be a huge win for the Mean Green.

How UNT finishes will come down to the final decisions that have yet to be made, including the following:

1. What does La’Darius Hamilton do?

The Corrigan-Camden linebacker was committed to Texas State before backing out. He has since visited UNT and will make his decision today.

I have talked to Hamilton on multiple occasions. The last time I talked to him he said that UNT is in the running along with a few other schools.

La’Darius wasn’t particularly talkative, but everything that I have heard indicates that he will sign with UNT tomorrow.

2. What’s the plan with Mason Fine?

I caught a lot of grief for saying a few days ago that Oklahoma quarterback Mason Fine would end up as a scholarship player one way or another at UNT.

There was some question as to what his status would be, but there is little doubt at this point that he will be a scholarship player. John E. Hoover from the Tulsa World wrote a tremendous series on Fine and his teammate Jason Pirtle, who is walking on at UNT. John mentioned in his story on Pirtle that Fine will be on scholarship next fall at UNT.

There was an expectation that after Seth Littrell took over as UNT’s coach that the next Troy Aikman, the next Joe Montana and the next Tom Brady would be forced to stage a cage match for the right to be the first quarterback to commit to UNT.

Don’t get me wrong. Littrell is a terrific offensive mind and a great hire for UNT, but expectations for what the Mean Green would be able to land at quarterback got way out of whack.

Fine isn’t a highly recruited player, but is a good fit — and a good get — for UNT.

3. Will Temple linebacker Corey Mann sign with UNT?

Greg Wille has covered sports in Temple for a long time and is pretty wired in. He indicated today that Mann will sign with the Mean Green. Mann was an honorable mention Class 5A all-state pick last season.

Does he take a scholarship spot? It looks like he will.

4. Are there any surprises out there?

Chances are very good that there are going to be a couple of surprises tomorrow. It only makes sense.

UNT got such a late start. It’s not like the Mean Green have a ton of players the coaches have a long relationship with as far as recruiting goes.

The only holdover coach now that Kevin Patrick got the chance to move up and join the staff at Texas Tech is Tommy Perry.

The longer a staff is around, the more likely it is that news on recruiting leaks out.

UNT’s staff isn’t going to mention offhand to Myrtle at the corner store or Jim at the gym that a new, exciting prospect committed this week.

The Mean Green’s coaches haven’t been around long enough to get to know Myrtle and Jim.

5. Is there another quarterback out there set to sign?

UNT needs quarterback help.

Is there another player UNT will take along with Fine? There is always that chance. UNT was involved with Florida quarterback Augie DeBiase, but it looks like he is headed to prep school.

6. Where does UNT end up in the recruiting rankings?

UNT is currently sitting at 11 out of 14 C-USA teams in the 247 Sports rankings that are pretty much the industry standard.

Does UNT move up? Do a few teams jump past at the last minute?

Recruiting rankings matter.

It’s a PROVEN FACT that in fact RECRUITING RANKINGS matter and MATTER A LOT.

There will be people who will claim no matter what happens tomorrow that the rankings don’t matter because of one of a few reasons … 1. My coach is smarter than your coach; 2. I found a one in a hundred example of when the rankings weren’t right about this one player one time; 3. I made up this really nifty theory of my own that makes me smarter than hundreds of analysts and coaches who have spent a career evaluating talent.

Public service announcement — Don’t be that guy.

And in a side note, scratch Austin Westlake wide receiver Chase Cokley.

Augie DeBiase likely headed to prep school

DeBiase

DeBiase

Florida high school quarterback Augie DeBiase is likely headed to prep school for a year to hone his skills before continuing his career on the college level.

DeBiase visited North Texas late last week and said he enjoyed his visit to the school.

A stay in prep school was a consideration for DeBiase. He said via text message Tuesday morning that he will not announce his college destination on signing day and that is leaning toward the prep school route.

New UNT coach Seth Littrell recruited DeBiase during his time as the offensive coordinator at Indiana and continued to track him during his time at North Carolina. UNT jumped into the race for DeBiase when Littrell took over at UNT.

DeBiase played for Rains, a Florida high school power, as a senior. He is a three-star prospect and is ranked No. 68 among pro-style quarterbacks in the Class of 2016 by 247 Sports.

DeBiase has maintained throughout his recruiting process that UNT will be one of his top choices as far as a college destination, either after high school or after a prep school season. He reiterated that stance Tuesday.

Littrell said shortly after taking over at UNT that addressing the Mean Green’s quarterback issues would be among his top priorities. UNT has struggled at the position since Derek Thompson helped lead the Mean Green to a breakout 2013 season and a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Thompson was the game’s MVP.

UNT started two quarterbacks last season in senior Andrew McNulty and DaMarcus Smith, who will be a senior this fall.

Littrell brought in another option when he landed Alabama transfer and former Allen standout Alec Morris. UNT also landed a commitment from record-setting Oklahoma quarterback Mason Fine.

UNT could look to add another quarterback in this class to develop long-term. Smith and Morris will both be seniors next season, while Fine could need a few years to adjust and grow after playing at a smaller school.

The hours before national signing day are quickly dwindling.

Stay tuned.