Tre Siggers optimism

North Texas running back Tre Siggers (15) holds off Houston defensive lineman Derek Parish as he runs down the sideline at Apogee Stadium last season during the Cougars' win over the Mean Green.

North Texas still has a long way to go to prepare for the 2020 season and a lot of questions to answer.

UNT didn't get a single practice in before spring drills were called off and has five new coaches on its staff. The hope is the Mean Green upgraded their talent and chemistry to the point they can improve on a 4-8 season.

There are reasons to think that will in fact be the case. We'll go over a few today as we kick off our annual series on five reasons for optimism and five reasons for pessimism heading into the season.

We start with the bright side today with five reasons the Mean Green could be better next year.

1. UNT has some talent coming back

The focus when it comes to UNT since the end of the season is how much talent the Mean Green lost to graduation.

That only makes sense. Quarterback Mason Fine, one of the greatest players in program history, completed his career last season. Defensive end LaDarius Hamilton is also out the door after consistently being rated as one of the better defensive players in Conference USA.

The departure of those top players makes it easy to overlook the significant talent UNT has coming back.

Slot receiver Jaelon Darden was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season after catching 76 passes for 736 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Running back Tre Sigggers burst on to the scene last year and earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors after rushing for 853 yards. He will only get better after moving back to running back from safety. 

And those are just two examples of top-end C-USA talents UNT will build around in 2020. Wide receiver Jyaire Shorter looked like a star in the making last season while catching nine touchdown passes as a redshirt freshman.

2. UNT has recruited at a higher level recently

One of the key moves UNT coach Seth Littrell has made in the last few years is upgrading his recruiting department.

The payoff has come with a series of highly regarded recruiting classes.  UNT's 2019 recruiting class was ranked fourth in C-USA by 247Sports, while its 2020 class was ranked third.

Shorter is just one of the talented players in those two classes who has already begun to emerge as a top player in C-USA. There are plenty more who should begin to move into more prominent roles in 2020.

3. Littrell has altered his staff in a way that should pay off

UNT's 2019 season was derailed in part by the program's struggles to replace offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Harrell tutored Fine and helped him blossom into one of the top quarterbacks in C-USA.

Fine and UNT's offense weren't the same after Harrell left for Southern Cal and Bodie Reeder took over. The Mean Green's scoring average dropped from 34.6 points per game to 30.6, while Fine's passing yards dropped from  291.8 to 257.3.

Littrell parted ways with Reeder at the end of the season. Reeder is highly regarded and landed at Utah State, where he is the Aggies new offensive coordinator, but didn't work out at UNT.

Littrell is set to take over calling plays this fall. He made his mark as an offensive coordinator at North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona before taking over at UNT.

The Mean Green's chemistry on offense is certain to be better with Littrell calling plays.

UNT will also have a new defensive coordinator in Clint Bowen after Littrell parted ways with Troy Reffett. The Mean Green enjoyed some solid seasons under Reffett, but it was clearly time for a change after the Mean Green allowed 32.5 points per game last season.

4. Conference USA is always wide open

UNT was a near unanimous pick to win C-USA's West Division last season but didn't come close to fulfilling expectations on its way to a 3-5 finish in league play.

That's not unusual when it comes to C-USA. The teams that are picked to win the East and West divisions frequently don't come through as expected. Teams often emerge out of nowhere to fare well.

UNT will likely be a decided underdog in C-USA this year. The role is one the Mean Green have often thrived in.

C-USA isn't like the SEC, where one can say with relative certainty who the top teams will be each year.

The wide-open nature of the league gives UNT hope this year.

5. UNT's chemistry will be better this season

There is no way UNT's chemistry as a team won't be better this fall.

Some teams are better than the sum of their parts. UNT was at the opposite end of the spectrum in 2019.

A team with Fine, a veteran offensive line and several good defensive players shouldn't have ended up 4-8. 

The Mean Green had good leadership from players like Fine, but a stunning lack of that elusive "it factor" last season.

UNT's bowl hopes were on the line in a game against Rice late last season. One would think the Mean Green would have come out with their hair on fire.

UNT barely showed up early on and trailed 20-0 at the end of the first half of a game it lost 20-14.

There is no telling if the Mean Green will have dramatically better chemistry as a team this fall.

One thing is for certain, though. It can't be any worse.

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

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