Seth Littrell won't get enough credit for his inaugural season at the helm of the Mean Green. He brought his team, that many (including this site) thought was a two or three win team and got them to a bowl game. Albeit a five win bowl season, but a bowl none the less.
Let's break down North Texas' five year recruiting numbers.
A brief disclaimer or two, first, it's recruiting i.e. an inexact science, zero star players go on to great NFL careers. We acknowledge that. But, if you look at trends, especially the top ten to fifteen classes each year you find that schools that recruit that level of talent tend to perform well. Second, we use 24/7 composite rankings for no good reason accept they are easier to track over the date ranges we're looking at.
Five Years and what do we have to show for it?
The recruiting run of North Texas in the last five years has been...rough. Not UTEP rough, but rough. Rough compared to where North Texas should be. In the past decade North Texas has undergone a phenomenal construction campaign that includes a beautiful Apogee Stadium, Mean Green Village, an Athletic Center, new weight room, etc, etc. Everything a growing athletic/football program needs. The Mean Green sit in one of the greatest recruiting hotbeds in the country. Denton is a pretty great college town and yet here we are, five years and not much to show.
North Texas' recruiting trend line looks like a shallow bell curve, with one year outside the top 100 bookended by years just outside the 120s. We predicted the Mean Green were prepared for take off after McCarney's 2013 Heart of Dallas Opus. Instead McCarney would go just 4-13 in his last one plus years. McCarney never really turned the corner recruiting either.
Enter Seth Littrell who now sits squarely in year two, with a full year in the saddle. We're sure he expected more, but maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel here. Maybe.
We harken back to the Old Pirate himself Mike Leach, the ultimate exploiter of college football's market inefficiencies, who took a Texas Tech program from its annual 6-5 regular season to bowl games and giant killing by recruiting players that fit his system and a scheme that drove defenses bananas. It's a system that Littrell and OC Graham Harrell know well. His second class is chock full of undersized athletes who may act as water bugs in Littrell's offense - small but impossible to catch. They also went lineman heavy, a position of dire need. Leach turned the Big 12 on its ear with scheme and fit, maybe Littrell does the same in CUSA. He'll need to because from a pure talent perspective the Mean Green are lagging.
Three Stars needed
For a Non-Power 5 school, three stars are the key to success. The Power 5's are going to take the VAST majority of four and five-star talent. Of 24/7s 335 four or five-star ranked recruits, only six signed outside the Power 5. (BYU grabbed two, Boise, UCF, Cincy, and Memphis each scored one) Great Group of Five schools will land the majority of their recruits in the 3-star range. Boise State has won 75% of their games the past four years and does so by signing classes that are 85% 3-star recruit or higher. PJ Fleck built his Western Michigan juggernaut not by Rowing the Boat, but rather by recruiting better players. In the Broncos last three seasons almost 60% of their signed classes were 3-Star caliber athletes.
Are 3-stars the be all and end all? No. And yes, the ratings systems aren't full proof, however they are pretty good. Swag parties like the Opening, regional combines, and satellite camps give better exposure and lead to better evaluations than ever before. Elite recruits and even everyday Joe's are poked, prodded, timed and measured. Unlike the old days when an in-home or on-campus visits were the first opportunity to see if the 6'3 290 pound guard is actually 6'1 220, most players are tracked from their sophomore year or before. The wind aided coach's stopwatch has been replaced by electronic timing and game tape is more readily available than ever before.
The Mean Green have gone five years without signing a class of 40% or more 3-star rated or better athletes . That's a rough stretch. We've used that word a lot. It's also come out in wins and losses. Just one loss separates North Texas from the worst teams in the CUSA from 2013 to 2016. The recruiting rankings, lack of 3-star success bear are a precursor to that drought.
So how does Littrell right the ship? Perhaps through superior talent evaluation and scheme. That however makes his margin for error razor thin. We know that college football is a quarterback centric game and without a doubt the most quarterback friendly system of the last 20 years has been Leach's. He made B.J. Symons a potent weapon. If Littrell can start the conveyor belt of 4,000 plus yard passers, he'll be able to find plenty of talented signal callers who want to climb aboard. He'll also find skill players that want to put up video game numbers as well. As it stands now, he'll face a lot of CUSA squads with better talent than his Mean Green.