UNT-USM prediction

North Texas will host Southern Miss in the Mean Green's Conference USA opener on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.

Southern Miss at North Texas

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Apogee Stadium, Denton

Records: UNT 1-1, 0-0 Conference USA; Southern Miss 0-3, 0-1 Conference USA

Last game: SMU 65, UNT 35; Tulane 66, Southern Miss 24

Last meeting: Southern Miss 45, UNT 27 (2019) 

TV: Stadium

What’s on the line?

UNT has an opportunity to get off to a good start in C-USA play while also burying the memories of a blowout loss at home to SMU when it hosts Southern Miss. The Mean Green have played just twice so far this season after their games at Texas A&M and Houston were called off due to COVID-19 concerns.

Opportunities are quickly dwindling for UNT, which must capitalize on every chance it gets to win, especially at home in conference play. The Mean Green didn't win a single road game last season.

Southern Miss heads into its game against UNT desperate for a win. The Golden Eagles have lost all three of their games, including their C-USA opener to Louisiana Tech, their biggest rival.

A loss to UNT would drop Southern Miss to 0-4 and all but eliminate the Golden Eagles from the race for the C-USA West Division title at 0-2.

When UNT has the ball

UNT has played well offensively in early stages of the season and enters its game against Southern Miss averaging 46.0 points per game. That total is bolstered by a 57-point outburst in a season-opening win over Houston Baptist but is still impressive.

UNT coach Seth Littrell said he plans to continue rotating quarterbacks Jason Bean and Austin Aune. Bean has started each of the Mean Green's first two games. The question is if that will change after Aune threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns in UNT's loss to SMU. 

Wide receiver Jaelon Darden has been impressive in UNT's first two games while hauling in 10 passes for 137 yards and five touchdowns.

Southern Miss struggled defensively in its last game, allowing 66 points and 430 rushing yards to Tulane. The Golden Eagles lost two of their top players in defensive lineman Jacques Turner and linebacker Racheem Boothe when they opted out of the season. Southern Miss does not look the same without them.

When Southern Miss has the ball

UNT has struggled to contain its opponents' passing games early this season. SMU quarterback Shane Buechele threw for 344 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the Mean Green, while Houston Baptist quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 480 yards

UNT will face another challenge this week in Jack Abraham. The senior was a preseason All-Conference USA selection and has thrown for 877 yards and five touchdowns through three games.

Littrell said UNT's struggles against the pass can be attributed to a host of factors. The Mean Green have faced two good quarterbacks so far and their defense has struggled in all areas of shutting down the passing game, including making plays in the secondary and getting pressure on quarterbacks.

Prediction

If UNT is going to make a run at the C-USA West Division title and a bowl game, it needs to start in the first few weeks of conference play. The Mean Green's first two games are at home against Southern Miss and Charlotte with winnable road games to follow at Middle Tennessee and UTEP.

UNT's coaches and players are well aware of that fact. 

Southern Miss is still dangerous, despite the number of players who have opted out of the season and its early struggles. The Golden Eagles nearly knocked off Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and scored in the final minute to pull out a 31-30 win.

This game will be close, but UNT will find a way to pull it out in the end.

Prediction: UNT 35, Southern Miss 30

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

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