The North Texas quarterback ranks among the most exciting in college football in 2018
Ninety-eight yards, 57 seconds.
In one, game-winning drive last October vs. Conference USA rival UT-San Antonio, North Texas quarterback Mason Fine gained a national reputation. The sequence included Fine rolling out and then delivering a bomb through three defenders into the hands of receiver Michael Lawrence. Fine completed the drive when he found wide receiver Rico Bussey up the middle a fraction-of-a-second before a Roadrunners defender made contact. Bussey took Fine's fifth completion of the possession to pay dirt for the win.
The drive made highlight shows and was aired on telecasts coming out of timeouts around the nation.
"I never felt we couldn’t do it," Fine said. "Looking back on it, the probability of actually pulling that off is really low. But everyone had confidence: the [offensive] line, the coaches, the receivers, and nobody blinked."
Fine's assessment of the actual likelihood North Texas could pull off that rally isn't wrong. ESPN.com's Win Probability chart gave the Mean Green a 1.2 percent chance to win when they took the field for that drive. That march down the field there may not be a better quarterback at defying odds than Fine.
Despite being recognized as 2014 USA Today Oklahoma Player of the Year at Locust Grove High School, Fine garnered interest mostly from Div. II programs, and just one scholarship offer from a Div. I university: Austin Peay -- which, with a 3-43 record in the previous four seasons, was arguably the worst program in the Football Championship Subdivision.
"I’d be lying if I said it didn’t frustrate me, because that was a dream of mine, to play Div. I football," Fine said. "I’ve been working toward that for the past 10 years, then not seeing the letters come in, not seeing the offers come in."
Meanwhile, North Texas football began a transition. The Mean Green were two years removed from a historic, 9-4 finish under head coach Dan McCarney, but bottomed out with a 1-11 record in 2015. North Texas made history of a more dubious nature that season, losing a 59-point decision to FCS opponent Portland State. McCarney was released, and two months later, former Texas Tech, Arizona and North Carolina assistant Seth Littrell came on board.
Littrell was tasked with turning around what was, at the time, perhaps the worst team in FBS. The process began on the recruiting trail, where an old friend gave Littrell a tip shortly before National Signing Day.
"I had a former high school coach [Matt Hennesy] I knew really well, [who] I’d grown up playing against and we continued to be good friends throughout his career," Littrell said. He ended up getting the job at Locust Grove, and had a player who ended up being a really great player for them.
"I went through and evaluated all the tape -- not the highlight tape, but really, the game film, and seeing all the things he did, it really wasn't close to some of the other quarterbacks we were evaluating," Littrell continued.
That player was Fine, who in his junior season, passed for 5,006 yards and 71 touchdowns -- those are not typos -- while leading Locust Grove to a 13-1 record. He followed that with a senior season passing for 4,227 yards and 53 touchdowns, topped off with another 631 rushing yards and 10 scores. All the while, Fine maintained a 4.0 grade point average and was voted junior class president at Locust Grove.
How such eye-popping figures and an impressive off-the-field resume generated such little recruiting buzz might be a mystery, were it not for some other figures Littrell cited.
"I know exactly why, and he knows exactly why: It was his height," Littrell said of Fine, who measured 5-foot-11, 165 pounds coming out of high school.
Having coached on offenses that included NCAA record-setting quarterbacks and future pros -- like 2017 first-round draft pick Mitchell Trubisky, and Super Bowl LII champion Nick Foles -- Littrell has firsthand experience with the sometimes obsessive nature placed on quarterbacks' physical attributes vs. their production.
"In today's age, people put a lot of emphasis on measurements," Littrell said. "How long are you, how fast are you, how big are you. ... College is no different than the NFL. A lot of times, in this game, we put too much on measurables. There's a lot of great players year in and year out you'll see that maybe don't have the measurables, but they're special players."
One such special player, Littrell said, was Fine. The decision to offer him a shot at North Texas "was a no-brainer for" the Mean Green coaching staff. Taking them up on the opportunity was, likewise, an easy decision for Fine.
"It only takes one coach," Fine said. "And that was Coach Littrell and his coaching staff. So, [being overlooked in recruiting] was a blessing in that sense."
It became evident right away that Fine and the new-look North Texas were a perfect pairing. Fine went from having zero FBS offers, to Littrell initially planning to redshirt him, to quarterbacking an FBS team in less than eight months.
With former Texas Tech stat-stuffing quarterback Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator, North Texas implemented a potent passing attack that allowed Fine to show off some of the same ability to read the field and spread the ball around as he exhibited for Locust Grove.
Fine experienced an adjustment period in his freshman season -- he said the speed of the college game presented a steep learning curve -- and he finished with 1,572 passing yards and six touchdowns. But last season, after Fine said a year of establishing rapport and repetition with Harrell, a much more "comfortable" quarterback delivered the sixth-most passing yards in FBS at 4,052 yards, and North Texas reached its first-ever C-USA Championship Game.
Every win on the march to nine proved important. Finishing 7-1 in league play was especially vital, preventing North Texas from a three-way tie atop the West division. Distilling an entire season down to 57 seconds fails to paint the entire picture -- but those 57 seconds against UTSA do provide an insightful snapshot on Fine shining against long odds.
"I'll tell you what, it's one of the greater moments I've had. We've had some great two-minute drives, but that's one I'll remember forever," Littrell said. "There's one thing we talk about weekly: If there's time on the clock, we have a chance to win the game."
All it takes is one chance; Mason Fine continues to prove that with his success at North Texas.
Four More Group of 5 and Independent Quarterbacks to Follow in 2018
Andrew Ford, Massachusetts
One of the best-kept secrets of college football just might be UMass quarterback Andrew Ford. Ford provided the Minutemen offense with consistency in 2017, throwing 22 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least 20 scores last season, only Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The next step for UMass to reach its first-ever bowl game is parlaying that consistency to the completion of games. Seven of the Minutemen's eight losses came by an average of 7.7 points, including a pair of near-misses against SEC opponents, Tennessee and Mississippi State. In another of those close losses, however, Ford's full potential shined.
He passed for 390 yards and five touchdowns, doing all in his power to rally a team with numerous injuries in an upset bid vs. Ohio. The Minutemen fell, 58-50, but they scored more than double Ohio's season-long defensive yield (24.2 points per game).
Ty Gangi, Nevada
Routinely competitive throughout the previous decade in both the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences, Nevada endured growing pains in 2017. The Wolf Pack finished 3-9 in head coach Jay Norvell's debut campaign. There's reason for optimism in 2018, however, with seven starters returning on each side of the ball -- and leading that veteran corps on offense is a bright spot from last season's struggles.
Gangi ran Nevada's revamped offense with some success, throwing 25 touchdown passes to go along with 2,746 yards through the air. While not exactly Colin Kaepernick-running-the-Chris Ault-Pistol kind of numbers, Gangi contributed well enough to the run game -- 180 yards and four touchdowns on 53 carries.
Six of Gangi's seven primary targets return, including a trio who were freshmen a season ago. The year of experience and an offseason spent cultivating chemistry should translate into an uptick in production. The offense should be fun, and -- one year removed from Fresno State going from 1-11 to divisional champion -- the MW West has another prime breakout candidate.
Justice Hansen, Arkansas State
Hansen leads all returning quarterbacks around the country in passing yards per game, last season doling out an eye-popping 331 per contest. Hansen's 3,967 total passing yards in 2017 rank third among all returning quarterbacks, behind only fellow Group of 5 standouts Mason Fine from North Texas and UCF's McKenzie Milton, and edging out potential first-round NFL draft pick, Drew Lock of Missouri.
In addition to his lofty passing numbers, Hansen's a two-way threat in a vein similar to former Arkansas State star, Ryan Aplin. Hansen ran for 422 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
McKenzie Milton, UCF
Perhaps Milton was not on your radar before January's Peach Bowl. If you caught UCF completing the only perfect season in Div. I football with a 34-27 defeat of Auburn, however, you saw the same thing Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn witnessed firsthand.
"Hats off to their quarterback. He made a lot of plays in the second half with his feet and he threw the ball very accurately," Malzahn said in the postgame press conference, via ASAP Sports transcripts.
Auburn experienced what plenty of prior UCF opponents saw from the dynamic Milton. He passed for 4,037 yards and rushed for another 613 in 2017, totaling 45 touchdowns in 13 games. With 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and '17 finalist Lamar Jackson now in the NFL, a compelling case that Milton is college football's best dual-threat quarterback can be made.
Though UCF undergoes leadership change with former head coach Scott Frost now at Nebraska, and former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel steering the ship, Milton entering his third season as the Knights' starting quarterback provides consistency for a team looking to prove last year was no fluke.
-- Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of meangreensports.com)