After a topsy-turvy offseason, we have finally made it to Week 1 of the college football season. Saturday night will feature a pair of teams coming off losing seasons, with FCS foe Houston Baptist playing North Texas in the first of only three scheduled games in 2020.
The Mean Green are coming off a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2019 where injuries and poor defense were the culprits for the downfall, and they enter this season having to replace one of the best players in program history: quarterback Mason Fine. While the defense once again ranked among the worst in Conference USA, the high-powered offense also took a tumble last year, as UNT saw sizeable declines in yards and points per game. Head coach Seth Littrell hopes to fix those issues head-on by re-assuming the play-calling duties in 2020.
While the Huskies finished 5-7 in 2019, last season could be deemed a success considering the team had won just two games combined in the prior two years. The offense paved the way for the resurgence, as HBU averaged 35.8 ppg. The issue? The Huskies' defense allowed 36.8 ppg.
Expect some fireworks on Saturday night.
Houston Baptist at North Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN3
When Houston Baptist Has the Ball
While North Texas is still sorting out its quarterback situation, Houston Baptist has no such problem. The Huskies return starter Bailey Zappe, who is one of the top gunslingers at the FCS level after throwing for 3,811 yards and 35 touchdowns last season. Zappe ranked second nationally with an average of 317.6 passing yards per game and will have the benefit of facing a UNT secondary that is replacing multiple starters from a year ago.
Throwing for that many yards per game isn't based on the offensive system alone — Zappe has plenty of help on the outside with a pair of standout receivers in Jerreth Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff, who combined for 192 receptions and 1,972 receiving yards in 2019. In the backfield, HBU will go with a committee approach between rushers Dreshawn Minnieweather and Ean Beek who combined for 11 rushing touchdowns and 1,451 yards.
When North Texas Has the Ball
Who steps out under center first for North Texas will be the primary focus on Saturday night, as the quarterback competition continues into Week 1 between Austin Aune and Jason Bean. The pair of sophomore quarterbacks were listed as co-starters on the team's initial depth chart, and Littrell stated in his opening press conference that both will play on Saturday. Bean has the edge in terms of experience after serving as Fine's backup in 2019 and completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns. The former track athlete back in high school could also give the UNT offense a different dimension than we've seen recently as a true dual-threat quarterback that Littrell has had success with in the past — namely Marquise Williams and Mitchell Trubisky back at North Carolina.
Aune is more in the mold of Fine as a pocket passer and has had a whirlwind of a collegiate athletic career. He committed to TCU out of high school (nine years ago!) but was drafted in the second round by the New York Yankees and played six years in the minor leagues. He then returned to college football and had a short stint at Arkansas and is now in his second year at North Texas, looking at what is likely his final shot to become a starting QB. Aune was behind Bean on last year's depth chart but looked good in a brief appearance against Louisiana Tech, completing 3-of-4 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Both quarterbacks will have no shortage of weapons at their disposal since the Mean Green return leading rusher Tre Siggers (853 yards, 6 touchdowns) and leading receiver Jaelon Darden (76 catches, 12 touchdowns).
Houston Baptist has the skill on offense to challenge a North Texas defense that struggled mightily a year ago and has to replace five starters from last season's squad. But UNT should be much improved on offense, even with a quarterback controversy, with Littrell now calling the shots. Look for both teams to put up plenty of yards but for the Mean Green to turn that yardage into more points.
Prediction: North Texas 38, Houston Baptist 17
— 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.