Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

usa today 11435011.0 - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

He allegedly had a Big 12 offer but turned it down for now. After what he’s accomplished in 3 years in Denton, he gets benefit of the doubt.

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In three seasons as North Texas’ head coach, Littrell has three bowls — only Darrell Dickey has taken the Mean Green to more, and he didn’t deliver his first bid until year four — plus a division title and back-to-back nine-win seasons, all at a program that had just careened off of a cliff. UNT had gone from nine wins to five to one in the two years before his arrival, and he immediately flipped that win total back around.

Granted, there are still boxes to check: he hasn’t won a bowl or a conference just yet. But among current fourth-year coaches, he’s accomplished as much as any.

Other schools have noticed. (Having Jimmy Sexton for an agent doesn’t hurt.) His name was linked with the vacant Kansas State, Texas Tech, Colorado, and North Carolina jobs this past offseason. He was KSU’s first choice, evidently, and got pretty far down the road before reportedly pulling out when the Big 12 school refused to let him make the staff changes he wanted to make.

There’s always a risk in turning down a bigger job. The example I always bring up is Gary Darnell. The former Western Michigan coach won 31 games in his first four seasons in Kalamazoo (1997-2000) and was linked to schools like, if I recall correctly, Oklahoma State and Arizona State and Missouri. None of those worked out, and he remained at WMU, where he suffered four consecutive losing seasons and never got another head coaching shot.

You have a window, and you never quite know when it’s going to close. But it’s hard to blame Littrell for thinking he will continue to get opportunities. He’s winning games, UNT returns most of last year’s offense, and, per the 247Sports Composite, he just signed a class with 23 three-star prospects in it. This has the look of a very healthy program.

The next step: consistency. North Texas’ overall product was pretty good in 2018, but it was all over the damn place. The Mean Green were one of the 10 toughest teams for Vegas to get a read on — their average absolute error versus the spread was 17.3 points, meaning Vegas missed UNT games, one way or the other, by more than 17 points. (Among C-USA teams, only ODU was higher.)

They beat the spread by 18.5 points against SMU, 26.5 against Liberty, and 34 against Arkansas. They also lost to the spread by 17.5 against ODU, 19 against UTSA, 24 against UTEP, and 31 in a bowl blowout against Utah State.

Only about three games went as they were expected last season. If you’re overachieving as much as you’re underachieving, then maybe that’s not too big a deal. But UNT was all over the map in 2018, and there was no single underlying cause — quarterback Mason Fine was iffy in a couple of those underachievement games, and both the offense and defense were equally bad in those four games.

If there’s to be more growth on the horizon, it will probably require stability.

If that doesn’t happen in 2019, it’s likely due to the defense, which is projected to fall from 78th to 98th in Def. S&P+ after losing all-world linebackers E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner (combined: 43 tackles for loss — yes, 43 — and 15.5 sacks) and corners Nate Brooks and Kemon Hall (five TFLs, 11 interceptions, 24 breakups). This foursome was incredibly unique from a disruption standpoint and will be hard to replace.

Still, the offense is going to give the Mean Green a shot. Fine is back after throwing for nearly 4,000 yards (with a 27-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio, no less), as are his top three running backs and three of four wideouts. Littrell lost offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to USC, but a lot of the UNT offense is of his own making. He was, after all, the OC at Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina. And beyond that, he made a pretty fun replacement hire.

2018 UNT trend - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

Jaelon Darden and Michael Lawrence combined for 80 catches and 1,008 yards (with a 70 percent catch rate), tight end Kelvin Smith added 29 catches and a score, and UNT running backs catch three to four balls per game as well.

Whoever steps into the Z role — likely a three-star youngster like sophomore Greg White, redshirt freshmen Jyaire Shorter or Austin Ogunmakin, or one of five incoming mid-three-star freshmen — will do so after winning a pretty stiff competition and will not necessarily face a ton of pressure to produce.

usa today 10480951 - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Rico Bussey

Then there’s the run game, which graded out even better than the pass — UNT ranked 61st in Passing S&P+ and 39th in Rushing S&P+, though part of that was likely due to UNT’s pass-first, pass-second nature.

No matter the system, UNT backs produced. The foursome of DeAndre Torrey, Loren Easly, Nic Smith, and Anthony Wyche combined for 5.5 yards per carry and a 45 percent success rate over 26 carries per game. That’ll do. All four are scheduled to return.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the number of negative rushes. UNT ranked 32nd in rushing marginal efficiency but 101st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). That tends to suggest either a) glitches on the line or b) lots of horizontal action in the run game.

To the extent that it’s the former, the return of Sosaia and Manase Mose, plus three-year starter Elex Woodworth, will at least give UNT one of the sturdiest interior lines in the conference. Both tackles need to be replaced, but sophomore Jacob Brammer got four starts, and Virginia Tech transfer D’Andre Plantin could quickly enter the lineup.

2018 CUSA offense - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

Garner, Brooks, Hall, and tackle Ulaiasi Tauaalo), but they might have been five of the six best players on the defense.

usa today 11435010 - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
LaDarius Hamilton

UNT still returns some play-makers, though. Ends LaDarius Hamilton and Dion Novil combined for 18 TFLs, eight sacks, and 22 run stuffs, and former Kansas State tackle Bryce English had similar productivity rates as Tauaalo’s backup. Plus, jack linebackers Jamie King and Joe Ozougwu combined for 11.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Littrell also signed three-star JUCO end David Sow and six three-star freshman linebackers and linemen.

usa today 11256802 - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Khairi Muhammad

Good safety play is key for the type of risks Reffett wants to take, and UNT’s got that. Khairi Muhammad, Taylor Robinson, and nickel backs Tyreke Davis and Jameel Moore all return, and all are cornerback-sized (either 5’10 or 5’11 and between 174 and 192 pounds), so there could be some shuffling if either of two returning corners — junior Cam Johnson or sophomore Jordan Roberts — isn’t up to snuff.

Once again there are plenty of young former three-stars in the chamber. At least one or two will need to prove themselves pretty quickly.

UNT had a nice balance last season. The offense was potent enough that the defense could take some risks, which were successful enough that it put the offense in an even more comfortable position. Last year’s corners and LBs were so productive that there’s almost no way to avoid a drop-off in havoc levels. We’ll see if that throws off the balance too much.

CUSA defense - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

Special Teams

You know what else helps that offense/defense balance? Dynamite special teams. UNT was fifth in Special Teams S&P+, combining high-level punting and place-kicking with dangerous kick returns.

The Mean Green get two-thirds of that back. Punter Alvin Kenworthy and kick returner DeAndre Torrey are scheduled to return, but they need a replacement for kicker Cole Hedlund, who was perfect on FGs under 40 yards and 6-for-9 beyond.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Abilene Christian NR 22.1 90%
7-Sep at SMU 85 -2.3 45%
14-Sep at California 60 -8.0 32%
21-Sep UTSA 128 22.1 90%
28-Sep Houston 73 0.2 50%
12-Oct at Southern Miss 74 -4.6 40%
19-Oct Middle Tennessee 104 9.8 71%
26-Oct at Charlotte 120 13.3 78%
2-Nov UTEP 130 29.0 95%
9-Nov at Louisiana Tech 86 -2.1 45%
23-Nov at Rice 126 15.5 81%
30-Nov UAB 106 10.2 72%
Projected S&P+ Rk 84
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 53 / 98
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -10.3 (104)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 85
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / -0.4
2018 TO Luck/Game +2.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (79%, 48%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 9.8 (-0.8)

Man, this season could go in a lot of ways. S&P+ projects UNT 84th overall — 19 spots lower than in 2018 — but the schedule offers seven games with a win probability of at least 70 percent and four near-tossups.

If they start out on fire, as they did last year, they could win September 50-50 games against SMU and Houston and hit conference play as the C-USA favorite. But those two games and division road trips to Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss could go either way, and we could easily see another season of nine-plus wins, or we could see UNT simply scrambling for bowl eligibility into November.

It’s hard to consistently stand out in the parity-heavy C-USA, and we’re now looking at Littrell having to replace some major defensive play-makers in 2019, then replace 14 to 16 senior starters in 2020. He’s recruiting well, and he’s made exciting assistant hires, but you don’t have total control over your window.

CUSA projections - Littrell bet on himself by returning to North Texas. Will it pay off?

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.

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