North Texas was a near unanimous pick to win Conference USA’s West Division title in the league’s preseason poll released Tuesday morning.
UNT received 20 of 26 first-place votes from media members who regularly cover the league. The poll was released in advance of C-USA media days Wednesday and Thursday in Frisco.
The Mean Green return most of their key players from a team that finished 9-4 after ending the regular season in a three-way tie for second in the West. Quarterback Mason Fine was named the C-USA preseason offensive player of the year Monday and was one of five UNT players named to the preseason all-conference team.
UNT coach Seth Littrell expressed confidence in the Mean Green and their potential to excel at the end of spring practice a few months ago.
“I don’t have any true concerns,” Littrell said after what he considered a highly productive spring. “We got better in all three phases. We have tweaked some different things with our systems. The players have worked hard to make sure that they understand it.”
The question now for UNT is whether it can handle being a favorite in C-USA — a challenge it knows well. The Mean Green were picked to win the West last season, only to come up short.
A UAB team loaded with more than 30 seniors won the West Division title and went on to beat Middle Tennessee in the conference title game.
UAB coach Bill Clark was named national coach of the year by several outlets after the Blazers capped their breakout season with a win over Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl.
UNT will be in a similar position this fall in terms of leaning on a host of experienced players. The Mean Green return 13 starters.
All five of UNT’s preseason all-conference players will be seniors in 2019, a group that includes wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr., offensive lineman Sosaia Mose, defensive end LaDarius Hamilton and punter Alvin Kenworthy.
Hamilton was one of several UNT players who joined Littrell in expressing confidence in where the team stood heading into the summer months.
“Being a competitor, I always think it could be better, but we got some growth out of the young guys at positions we needed,” Hamilton said.
UNT now must come together and regain the form that helped it win the West Division in 2017. The Mean Green lost just one conference game that season to Florida Atlantic, which went on to beat UNT in the C-USA title game.
UNT dropped close games last season to Louisiana Tech and UAB, a pair of teams that went on to win bowl games. The surprise came when UNT was upset on the road at Old Dominion, a team that stunned Virginia Tech before stumbling to a 4-8 finish.
Fine said this summer that he has been pleased with UNT’s growth, both from a chemistry standpoint and in terms of understanding its schemes. Bodie Reeder took over as offensive coordinator in the offseason following the departure of Graham Harrell for USC.
How UNT continues to grow could determine how the Mean Green fare in what could be a competitive West Division race.
Southern Mississippi was picked to finish second and received four first-place votes. Louisiana Tech was picked to finish third while UAB landed at fourth. The Blazers received two first-place votes.
Marshall was picked to win the East Division after receiving 14 first-place votes. Florida International and FAU were picked to finish second and third, respectively. FIU received nine first-place votes, while FAU received three.
Each of C-USA’s head coaches will appear at media days, which will kick off Wednesday. West Division coaches and player representatives will appear on the opening day of the event.
East Division coaches and players will close out the event Thursday morning.