For the second straight year, the UTSA Roadrunners will host the Conference USA title game as they take on the North Texas Mean Green, who are making their first appearance in the conference championship matchup since 2017.
This was an expected result for the Roadrunners (10-2, 8-0 C-USA), who came into the 2022 college football season as reigning conference champions, bringing back more than 73 percent of their returning production from last year. Offensively, UTSA was as good as anticipated, averaging 37.9 points per game, which led the conference, scoring 30 points or more in all but one game. Following a loss to Texas in mid-September, the Roadrunners rattled off nine consecutive wins for a second straight 10-win campaign under head coach Jeff Traylor. He's now 29-9 in three seasons at UTSA.
As for the Mean Green (7-5, 6-2), their appearance in the title game comes as a bit of a surprise, projected by most to finish in the middle of the pack within C-USA under head coach Seth Littrell, who came into the year on the hot seat. While it's been a bit of a roller coaster (UNT has not won more than two games in a row), this team came on strong late, winning five of its last seven, including a 21-17 victory over Rice last Saturday to clinch a spot in the championship game. The offense deserves much of the credit for the resurgence in 2022, averaging a robust 34.5 points per game, which is a touchdown more per contest compared to last season.
On that note, with a game total of 67.5, expect to see some points from both sides in Friday night's championship bout. UTSA defeated North Texas 31-27 when they last played on Oct. 22 thanks to a last-second touchdown pass. That game was in the Alamodome, just like this one will be.
Conference USA Football Championship Game: North Texas at UTSA
When North Texas Has the Ball
North Texas' rebound this season coincided with the resurgence of the passing game as the Mean Green jumped from second to last in the conference a year ago to fourth in 2022, averaging 267.8 yards per game behind junior quarterback Austin Aune. Arguably the team's most scrutinized player dating back to last year, Aune is now tied with former starter Mason Fine for the school's single-season touchdown pass record (31). It's been a total team effort with five different players having between 23 and 36 receptions. The return of junior receiver Jyaire Shorter, who has battled injuries the last two seasons, provided a major boost to the group as he's posted a team-high nine touchdowns in 11 games, averaging more than 27 yards per catch.
The Mean Green were plagued by injuries in the running game with three different running backs starting at least one game. One would think that would lead to lesser production, but North Texas wound up second in the conference in yards per game on the ground (204.1 ypg) just one year after leading C-USA in rushing. The battle in the trenches will go a long way to determining Friday's outcome as UTSA has been solid vs. the run (149.7 ypg, third in the conference), including holding the Mean Green to just 22 rushing yards in the meeting earlier this season. Freshman outside linebacker Trey Moore has had an outstanding debut with a team-leading six sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss.
When UTSA Has the Ball
The injuries have mounted in the second half of the season, yet the UTSA offense just continued to rack up the points, entering this game 13th nationally at 37.9 per game. The passing game leads the way with senior quarterback Frank Harris, who somehow managed to improve upon his outstanding junior campaign, completing 70 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and increasing his passing output by more than 70 yards per game (293.7, 12th in the FBS). Harris is supported by one of the top wide receiver corps in the country (yes, country) with veterans Zakhari Franklin, DeCorian Clark, and Joshua Cephus combining for 71 percent of the team's receiving production. Clark suffered a season-ending torn ACL in November and his absence has been felt. In the three games he has not played in, the Roadrunners have averaged just 246 passing yards per game, compared to the 325 over the first nine contests.
Depth issues at running back also could be an issue for UTSA, as the backfield is down both leading rusher Brenden Brady (699 yds., 9 TDs) and Trelon Smith (190, 2). Fortunately, redshirt freshman Kevorian Barnes has emerged as a legitimate playmaker in the second half of the year with three 100-yard rushing performances while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Harris also is a threat to make something happen with his legs (539, 8), another benefit of running behind one of the best offensive lines in Conference USA, if not the country. The Roadrunners rank 10th in stuff rate and 11th in line yards, according to CollegeFootballData.
The North Texas defense remained stagnant in 2022 under coordinator Phil Bennett, ranking eighth in C-USA during the regular season against the run (185.3 ypg) and ninth vs. the pass (265.7 ypg). Senior linebacker KD Davis leads the way with 118 total tackles, which is tops in the conference.
Friday night's contest will be a rematch from earlier in the year when UTSA scored a game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds remaining to defeat the Mean Green. While the score was close throughout, the Roadrunners dominated the game statistically, limiting UNT to just 22 yards on the ground, had a significant edge in time of possession (38:23 vs. 21:37), and outgained the Mean Green by 148 total yards. This should be another close contest, but UTSA's talent edge on offense combined with the home-field advantage in the Alamodome should be enough to secure a second straight conference title.
Prediction: UTSA 38, North Texas 30
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
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