When the North Texas Mean Green (2-0) take the field on Saturday against the Arkansas Razorbacks (1-1) in Fayetteville, one way or another history will be made. Depending on the team one cheers for will affect how one feels about the outcome of the game.
Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell is pushing his name atop of athletic directors' "hot coaching prospects lists" based on his performance in Denton. The former Arizona Wildcats (2010-11) and Indiana Hoosiers (2012-13) offensive coordinator is making waves in his first head coaching gig with North Texas, seeing the Mean Green go from 5-8 in 2016 to 9-5 last season. NTU is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since the 1994 season thanks to the top-ranked passing attack in the country led by junior quarterback Mason Fine. After games against SMU and FCS opponent Incarnate Word, Fine is averaging 430 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns.
With the hope of making a bowl game in Year 1 under new head coach Chad Morris, the likelihood of Arkansas going bowling was greatly diminished last week with a 34-27 non-conference road loss to Colorado State. The Hogs looked like a holdover squad from 2017, folding in the second half while giving up 25 straight points, 17 of those in the fourth quarter. The instability at quarterback between Ty Storey and Cole Kelley stalled an offense that was moving in the chains earlier in the game, and this in wore down a defense that had held the Rams in check until the latter part of the third quarter.
North Texas at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Arkansas -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas QB play
"Back to the drawing board" had to be the mentality for the Arkansas staff this week with their dueling quarterbacks. Ty Storey started the game by connecting on just five of his 13 pass attempts for 36 yards and two interceptions. Inserted after halftime, Cole Kelley threw the ball better, going 6-for-9 for 102 yards and a touchdown, but looked lost at times running Chad Morris’ read-pass option attack.
With a quick hook extending from the sidelines for either quarterback, how will that affect their play? Storey and Kelley may be looking over their shoulders at true freshman Connor Nolan. Nolan, a 4-star, in-state product from Greenwood High School, has been getting positive reviews from offensive coordinator Joe Craddock as the third-string quarterback.
2. Mean Green QB Mason Fine
Fine is on a roll, but is he ready for the athletes he will face in Arkansas’ defense? Fine’s career at North Texas is full of 300- and 400-yard games but in 2017, when facing Iowa on the road in Week 3, the Hawkeyes held him in check and beat the Mean Green 31-14.
North Texas is averaging 110 rushing yards per game this season. If the Razorbacks stuff the run and make the offense one-dimensional, can Fine respond under pressure?
3. North Texas’ run defense
If there was a surprise takeaway from Arkansas' loss to Colorado State it was how well the Razorbacks ran the ball after concerns with the offensive line in fall camp. Junior tailback Devwah Whaley had 26 carries and turned those into 165 yards, leading the way as the team finished with 318 yards on the ground.
The Mean Green were statistically one of the worst in the nation against the run a year ago, allowing 203 yards per game. They have held their first two opponents to 111 per contest but that was against the offensive lines SMU and Incarnate Word trotted out. Can North Texas' defense hold up against an SEC team that will have a considerable advantage along the offensive line?
Streaks were made to be broken but Chad Morris does not want to see his new squad put a blemish on the Hogs’ 6-0, or 9-0, depending on the source, all-time record against the Mean Green. The last time the two programs met was in 2007 with Arkansas walking away with a 66-7 triumph. That is what the Arkansas fans want to see on Saturday.
Colorado State quarterback K.J. Carta Samuels carved up the Arkansas defense for 389 yards with two touchdowns while only taking one sack in 47 attempts. Can Mason Fine locate the open receiver quickly enough to keep the Razorbacks’ pressure at arm’s length, or can Arkansas take advantage of its superior size and athleticism and get him out of rhythm?
The Mean Green want to move to 3-0 to open the season for the first time since 1989, but these Hogs seem riled up.
Prediction: Arkansas 38, North Texas 25
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site,www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of meangreensports.com)