Seth Littrell exceeded expectations with a 5-8 bowl season in 2016. As he heads into year two North Texas could be destined for great things or maybe everything went just about as well as it could have and the fall will be swift in 2017.
North Texas Will Be Better...
Because Littrell has more pieces that fit his system. Littrell comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree, a coach who has made a successful career exploiting market inefficiencies. Leach took the Big 12 by storm twice - once as an assistant at Oklahoma, where Littrell was a running back and again at Texas Tech when he was given his own pirate ship. Littrell coached with Leach in Lubbock. Littrell has worked with some great offensive minds in addition to Leach, having helped Kevin Wilson and Larry Fedora. Littrell knows how misfit toys can fit together to form a winner. In season one he worked, by in large, with the pieces he inherited from Dan McCarney and brought in the odd grad transfer to augment. Now in year two the roster looks more like Littrell's.
Littrell has proven he's a keen evaluator of talent, both on the field and off it. Mason Fine was offered by no one out of Locus Grove, Oklahoma when Littrell gave him his only FBS offer. Three of his assistants jumped to Power 5 jobs at places like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida. Littrell has the secret sauce and he's turning North Texas into a contender.
Troy Reffett is good at his job. Someday someone will give Troy Reffett credit for what he's done during his eight years calling defenses. Since he first started calling the shots with Rocky Long at New Mexico his defenses have average 60th in total defense including four top 50 units and a top 25 unit at ULM in 2010. Last season the Mean Green improved from 120th to 89th in total defense. This season Reffett has a talented secondary returning, a playmaking Joshua Wheeler at linebacker, and a very good rotation on the interior of his defensive line. With Reffett's multiple, flexible, attacking scheme they'll be tough to handle.
Kliff Kingsbury. B.J. Symons. Sonnie Cumbie. Cody Hodges. Go back and look. Look at what this offense can do with gym rats rather than blue chips at quarterback. Those four listed quarterbacks are responsible for three of the top twenty single season passing years in NCAA history. They all finished top 5 in passing yards during their careers. And none of them were highly sought after on signing day.
The point being while Mason Fine and Quinn Shanbour may need to ride piggy back on each others shoulders to change a light bulb and didn't have many stars attached to their names come recruiting time, they fit the mold of classic Air Raid overachievers. Fine was supposed to sit and watch Alec Morris, the Alabama transfer, run the show last season but forced his way into the lineup by week two. Both Fine and Shanbour will be in year two of the Littrell/Graham Harrell offense and should grow accordingly. With Jeffrey Wilson and running back this offense is primed to improve.
North Texas Will be Worse...
They were a five win team that made a bowl game because of APR. So this is the argument that has consumed rival message boards and twitter accounts. Maybe 2016 wasn't that impressive. The Mean Green were 2-5 vs. teams with winning records, 4-8 vs. FBS schools, and 3-5 vs. CUSA opponents. Maybe the real Mean Green was the one that got clobbered by UTEP on the road and put up 53 total yards vs. Florida. Mason Fine for all of the surprises he brought, threw for 250 yards or more just twice and had six touchdowns to five picks. Were it not for Jeffrey Wilson carrying the team, the APR score doesn't matter and this team is a three or four win team. Were it not for the saturation of bowl games then the key defining element of North Texas' season, a bowl game appearance, would never happen and the Mean Green would have been a 5-7 team that was outscored by over 100 points and beat two teams with winning records.
The offensive line is a huge issue. Last season the Mean Green offensive line allowed 43 sacks, good enough for 120th in the FBS. One better than Texas State and Texas State's offensive line was worst we've seen in a minute. Add to that Trey Keenan and Sam Rice, arguably North Texas' best two linemen, are gone and Chris Miles missed all of spring due to a knee injury. At time of posting Littrell added 6-7 Riley Mayfield from Abilene Christian as a grad transfer. He and 6-9 Jordan Murray look like a decent front court for a basketball team, but North Texas will be hurting up front.
A ton of skill talent is gone. While Littrell doesn't need blue chips at skill positions to make the offense hum, some experience would help. This offseason the Mean Green lost five of their top seven pass catchers including Tee Goree who transferred to SFA prior to the bowl game. Willy Ivery, who was very effective spelling Jeffrey Wilson, is gone as well due to academics. The Mean Green were already losing Thaddeous Thompson and Kenny Buyers due to graduation. Jalen Guyton and Turner Smiley are nice pieces, but they don't go far enough to replenishing the pantry.