While Texas and Oklahoma draw the headlines and the national press, perhaps the most exciting game in the State will take place in Denton Saturday night as UTSA travels to face North Texas. The two emerging G5 programs get to tangle on the field. They skirmish just about everywhere else, the recruiting trail, twitter, heck even when the two aren't playing each other they're checking each other's score out of the corner of their eye.
The dismissal of two aging coaches, Larry Coker and Dan McCarney, ushered in two exciting, albeit unknown leading men. Most considered Frank Wilson a recruiter first and foremost when he took the UTSA job. He'd never been a coordinator at the college level, and his head coaching experience came in the high school ranks in New Orleans. Seth Littrell was a surprise pick for the Mean Green after stops at Texas Tech, Indiana, Arizona, and North Carolina. Littrell didn't make the usual suspects and hot names lists and took the job amidst a collective "who is that guy?" from North Texas fan base. Both hires are solid triples if not home runs.
Wilson, in just over a year, has built UTSA into a CUSA power. They play a physical brand of trench warfare, usually reserved for the SEC. On offense, the Runners rely on a former walk-on, who Frank Scelfo has turned into a top fifteen passer. Two years ago if you'd said Dalton Sturm would complete 70% of his throws in a pro-style, conventional offense most of us would've laughed. He was an also-ran who was supposed to carry a clipboard for Blake Bogenschutz. Now he might be the best quarterback in CUSA unless the guy from Denton lays claim.
That guy is Mason Fine, an undersized sophomore from Locust Grove, Oklahoma. He was supposed to walk-on at Oklahoma State until a coaching buddy of Littrell's gave the coach a heads up that the all-time leading passer in Oklahoma High School History could flat out play. Even then Fine was an afterthought to Alabama transfer Alec Morris. By week two you couldn't keep Fine off the field. This season he's shown a mastery of Graham Harrell's Air Raid offense, building an impressive resume through five weeks.
On Saturday night you'll get to see two primetime backs in Jalen Rhodes and Jeffery Wilson. Both play a more significant role in their respective team's success than perhaps any two other players. Rhodes stepped into the spotlight after last season's backup role hardly contained him. Wilson's been healthier for longer this season than at any point in his career, and he's putting up video game numbers.
UTSA sets loose a hoard of bullies on defense. They take the line of scrimmage and suffocate offenses. On third down, the Roadrunners are an elite unit that doesn't waste energy or give hope. UTSA has a prodigy at linebacker in Josiah Tauaefa who grew up fifteen minutes from North Texas' campus but didn't get a sniff from the local team. La'Kel Bass flanks Tauaefa. He took a circuitous route to the River City - from St. Louis to prep school to the JC ranks. All Bass does is improve at his craft and make plays.
North Texas brought in Troy Reffett to institute a havoc policy on defense. When you think of a defensive coordinator archetype Reffett is the clay model. Grizzled, to the point, and direct, his defense carried North Texas for most of last season using grad transfers and spare parts. The Mean Green swarm to the football from all angles. If UTSA is brute force, North Texas is lightning speed. Reffett installed an odd man front out of necessity last year because he lacked the bodies to do anything else. North Texas jumped 31 spots in total defense. The season they're already ten slots ahead of that pace.
We'd like to tell you that Littrell and Wilson will stick around and watch this young rivalry grow. Perhaps go head to head in a mini ten-year war, but that's usually not the case. These two are showing signs of being unique, and the secret is getting out. We're left to enjoy what should be a great football game with a lot on the line.
Tune into Watch ESPN tomorrow night around six p.m. Better yet, if you're one of the over seven million residents of the Metroplex, jog up I-35 and into Apogee. There'll be 92,000 in the Cotton Bowl, but the better game might just be in Denton.