UNT reasons for pessimism

North Texas safety Alex Morris recovers a fumble during a win over Rice last season at Apogee Stadium. UNT will play Rice in Houston this fall.

North Texas’ 2020 season was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of results.

UNT came into the year off a 4-8 train wreck of a campaign and hoped to get back to its winning ways in coach Seth Littrell’s fifth season.

Evaluating how the Mean Green fared depends on one’s perspective. On the bright side, UNT won four games while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and qualified for a bowl game for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

The problem was the Mean Green finished under .500 for the second straight year at 4-6 after being blasted 56-28 by Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

The question now is where UNT is headed as the 2021 season approaches. We finish our yearly summer evaluation today with five reasons for pessimism when it comes to the Mean Green to balance out our five reasons for optimism from earlier in the week.

Here’s the downside for the Mean Green.

1. UNT lost an all-time great in Jaelon Darden

One of the remarkable aspects of the 2020 season for UNT is that the Mean Green featured Conference USA’s MVP in Jaelon Darden and still only went 3-4 in league play.

Darden caught 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in nine games.

The slot receiver was a generational talent for a program like UNT. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Darden in the fourth round of the NFL draft. The Mean Green haven’t had a player selected that high since Kim Phillips was picked by New Orleans Saints in the third round in 1989.

The chances of UNT having anyone who can come anywhere close to filling Darden’s shoes are between slim and none.

And none is a 28-point favorite in that scenario.

2. It wasn’t just Darden UNT lost

Replacing Darden is a huge obstacle. The bad news is that he is far from the only key player UNT lost.

When UNT needed a player to fill in for Darden in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, it turned to Austin Ogunmakin. He went out and piled up seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, which seemed promising, right up until he entered the NCAA transfer portal and landed at Liberty.

Ogunmakin is one of several key UNT players who transferred out.

Defensive back Cam Johnson (UCLA), running back Tre Siggers (SMU) and quarterback Jason Bean (Kansas) all transferred. Offensive lineman Anterrious Gray entered the portal and has yet to announce where he is headed.

Teams across college football are losing a little less talent this year due to players gaining a year of eligibility due to the pandemic. UNT wasn’t hit particularly hard in terms of numbers but lost several key players and a ton of production with them.

3. The Mean Green’s schedule is brutal

One of the uncomfortable realities about UNT heading into the 2021 season is that the Mean Green could be better and still not finish over .500 due to their schedule.

It’s brutal.

UNT will be favored in its season opener against Northwestern State. The Mean Green might not be favored again until they host UTEP in the 10th week of the season.

UNT plays at SMU in the second week of the year. The Mean Green haven’t won a game in Dallas since 1933 and trail the all-time series 6-33-1. UNT will then face defending Conference USA champion UAB, travel to Louisiana Tech and Missouri and then host Marshall and Liberty.

Liberty will likely be ranked to start the season. UNT is 4-36 all-time against the SEC, so the Missouri game looks like a long shot. UAB and Marshall will be among the top teams in C-USA and Louisiana Tech is always tough.

UNT’s hope is that it can survive that stretch and road games at Rice and Southern Miss before it comes home to face UTEP on Nov. 13.

The Mean Green’s season has the potential to unravel in a hurry after their season opener.

4. There is no guarantee UNT’s defense will be substantially better

UNT’s big problem last season was that its defense allowed 42.8 points per game, a performance that resulted with Clint Bowen being banished to Kansas to work as a high school coach.

Former SMU coach Phil Bennett came out of retirement to take over. Bennett has a ton of experience at places like Baylor, LSU and Texas A&M, but that is no guarantee UNT will be substantially better.

Bennett’s experience as a coordinator has come largely at national powerhouse programs. UNT will soon find out if he can thrive while working with C-USA level talent. That’s far from a given.

There is still a long way to go before the season starts, but it also doesn’t look like UNT will have added a ton of immediate impact defensive players before the season.

Defensive lineman Kalvin Hutchings and cornerback TyRae Thornton might help, but UNT could end up running out largely the same lineup.

The hope at that point would be that Bennett can get more out of UNT’s players than Bowen did. He’s more than capable, but there is a chance the Mean Green only make an incremental jump that doesn’t help matters enough.

5. UNT might not be substantially better at quarterback

UNT never figured out its quarterback situation last season, when Jason Bean and Austin Aune both saw time.

Bean left the program after throwing for 1,131 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven starts and landed at Kansas. Aune threw for 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns and heads into the fall looking to win the job.

Aune will have some additional competition when North Carolina transfer Jace Rudder arrives. Rudder played sparingly in three seasons with the Tar Heels and is looking to capitalize on the potential that made him a four-star prospect out of high school.

Aune played six seasons of minor league baseball and will turn 28 two days after UNT’s season opener.

It seems unlikely Aune will make a big jump this late in his career and Rudder has been injury prone.

Could one make a significant jump and be an impact C-USA player? Absolutely. The chance whoever starts ends up being an average C-USA player or worse is also very real.

The odds of UNT improving if it doesn’t get better at quarterback are not good.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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