Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Although it won four straight league titles upon entering, North Texas did not have a gracious exit from the Sun Belt Conference. The Mean Green played a very tough non-conference schedule and won one less game than in 2011. Coach Dan McCarney took the Cyclones to the bowl season in five of his final seven seasons at Iowa State. He has compiled a 9-15 record in two years with the Mean Green.
North Texas began its season with a lopsided, 41-14 loss at LSU. It downed Texas State, 34-7, the following week to climb back to the .500 mark. The Mean Green then lost two in a row, to Kansas State (35-21) and Troy (14-7). They beat Florida Atlantic, 20-14, on the road, but could not repeat that success the following week at Houston (44-21). North Texas went 2-4 the rest of the way, with victories over Louisiana (30-23) and South Alabama (24-14), and losses to Middle Tennessee (38-21), Arkansas State (37-19), ULM (42-16) and Western Kentucky (25-24).
North Texas's 4-8 record made it ineligible for a bowl bid. It has not played in a bowl game since 2004, which is also the last year it claimed a conference title.
OFFENSE: North Texas was an average team offensively last season, finishing 51st in rushing (173.1 yards per game), 72nd in passing (219.1), but produced just the 103rd most points, at 20.9 points per contest. Senior Derek Thompson is the leading candidate the start under center for the third straight opener. He passed for 2,629 yards with 14 touchdowns last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales may consider other options at quarterback if Thompson struggles. He has a pair of intriguing backups in Andrew McNulty and Brock Berglund to consider.
Whichever passer is dropping back will utilize senior wideout Brelan Chancellor, who racked up 450 yards and five touchdowns on 25 catches in 2012. Darnell Smith (379 yards, 28 catches) and Carlos Harris (253 yards, 19 catches) are a couple of additional options in the aerial attack. Senior tight end Drew Miller (131 yards, 18 catches) is an above average blocker for his position. He will be a help to the offensive line that returns Antonio Johnson (6-5, 311), Mason Y'Barbo (6-2, 309) and Cyril Lemon (6-3, 321), who all started last season as sophomores. The Mean Green led the nation in sacks allowed, giving up just a half-sack per game.
"As a quarterback I always want to make sure the offensive line has some experience," said Canales. "The consistency and the continuity that we have offensive line wise provides a lot of strength for the quarterback game. They feel confident in the guys up front."
The Mean Green also have three of their top four leading rushers back. Senior tailback Brandin Byrd was the sixth most productive ball carrier in the SBC last season with 860 yards and four scores on 205 attempts. Junior halfback Antoinne Jimmerson (544 yards, five TDs) regularly provided a spark and Chancellor (155 yards, 16 attempts) contributed in the ground attack on occasion also.
DEFENSE: North Texas allowed 27.8 points per game in 2012, which made it a middle of the road defense when compared to the rest of the FBS. It was a huge step in the right direction though, as it was the lowest points allowed average for the program since 2006. The defensive performance could get even better as the Mean Green return eight starters from last season's unit.
The entire secondary is back, with sophomore cornerback Zac Whitfield coming off of an impressive rookie season during which he recorded a team-high three interceptions. The defensive backfield was responsible for a healthy share of the takedowns last year. Senior cornerback Hilbert Jackson registered the third-most tackles (84) on the team while safeties Lairamie Lee (72) and Marcus Trice (63) were right behind him.
The top two tacklers are also back. Senior linebacker Zachary Orr made 108 total stops and intercepted a pair of passes as he consistently appeared to be the heart and soul of the defense. Junior Derek Akunne plays well alongside of Orr. He made a career-high 90 total tackles in 2012.
"We've got to be more disciplined in our coverages," said McCarney. "We were pretty darn good at interceptions last season. We were really poor on forcing fumbles. If you don't hit guys and hit them in the right way, with correct technique, you're not going to force fumbles. And we didn't. We have a lot of room to improve there."
The defensive line has one of the team's key players in senior defensive end Aaron Bellazin (6-2, 244), who tallied 32 total tackles, nine for loss and five sacks in 2012. The defensive tackle tandem of Alexander Lincoln (6-2, 286) and Richard Abbe (6-4, 315) is going to be helpful against the run.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior kicker Zach Olen was reliable from short distances last season, making 9-of-10 field goals from inside of 40 yards and 28 of his 29 extra point attempts. He went just 2-of-6 from 40 and beyond though, which means North Texas has to move the ball pretty deep into enemy territory to put him in position. The Mean Green will employ a new punter with redshirt freshman Blake Macek expected to be the fourth-down specialist.
North Texas could stand to bolster its special teams play after ranking 104th in kick return average (19.2 per attempt) and 117th in punt return average (2.1 per attempt). Chancellor was the number one returner on the depth chart, with 18 kick returns for 351 yards and five punt returns for 10 yards.
OUTLOOK: The Mean Green bring back a whole lot from a team that left plenty to be desired last season. They are also entering their first season in the Conference USA. North Texas plays its entire non-conference schedule to begin its 2013 campaign and then has its inaugural eight C-USA matchups.
North Texas begins its season at home at Apogee Stadium against Idaho, then it will visit Athens, Ohio to play the Bobcats. The Mean Green face another MAC school the following week when Ball State comes to Denton and will conclude their non-league run in Athens, Georgia against the Bulldogs. Their first tour of the new look C-USA includes games against Tulane, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Rice, Texas-El Paso, Texas-San Antonio and Tulsa.
North Texas's biggest strength is its depth on both sides of the ball. While it has plenty of experience, the current crop of players have failed to get the job done thus far. The move to the C-USA should help get better recruits to consider the Mean Green, but they will need to wait for that to occur before they will contend for a conference championship.