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Summer Vacation: Video Game Underdogs and the North Texas Mean Green

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UPDATE: I was just reminded that Todd Dodge was fired on October 20, right before UNT's offensive surge. Post updated accordingly.

For team profile No. 3, we stay in the state of Texas. I figure I'll just finish off Texas, then head east from there unless I get a specific request...

Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

It's safe to assume that a large portion of the people reading this blog have gone through something similar: you're playing EA's NCAA Football, and you're getting too good to run a dynasty with a real team, so you decide to bring some small program to glory. For a challenge, you start a dynasty with Western Michigan, or New Mexico, or Rice. I did it with this game in college, and I do it now with my latest obsession. (Crewe Alexandra, your Premier League title is only a year or two away ... we're so close ... please don't fire me now.)

For me, North Texas was always the video game underdog of choice. They have a great name, unique colors, great name, solid recruiting base, and a great name. (And we may have run the Create-a-Player for a 6'11, 400-pound halfback.) And because of all those titles I won them in the late-1990s and early-2000s, I still feel a strange attachment to this program to which I have very little real association (a good friend went there for a while, and that's about it). Add to that the fact that, until a couple of months ago, the North Texas head coach was the mentor of my school's best quarterback ever, and it's safe to say that I was really hoping the Todd Dodge Experiment would work out in Denton.

It did not.

And now, just in time for a fresh, fancy new stadium, we get to watch how quickly former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney can turn Dodge's pseudo-spread personnel into something with much more strength and efficiency.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Click image to enlarge.

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 90
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Clemson 10-35 L 27.5 - 42.6 L
11-Sep Rice 31-32 L 18.2 - 11.7 W
18-Sep at Army 0-24 L 12.8 - 30.2 L
25-Sep at Florida Atlantic 21-17 W 28.1 - 38.2 L
2-Oct UL-Lafayette 27-28 L 22.5 - 30.8 L
9-Oct Arkansas State 19-24 L 18.9 - 26.1 L
16-Oct Florida International 10-34 L 15.7 - 33.2 L
30-Oct at Western Kentucky 33-6 W 28.4 - 22.2 W
6-Nov Troy 35-41 L 33.7 - 30.3 W
13-Nov at Middle Tennessee 23-17 W 27.5 - 28.4 L
20-Nov at UL-Monroe 37-49 L 22.1 - 41.8 L
27-Nov Kansas State 41-49 L 36.0 - 31.3 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 23.9 87 29.7 82
Adj. Points Per Game 24.3 85 30.6 87

How much leeway do you think Todd Dodge had coming into 2010? Do you think seven points (one against Rice, one against UL-Lafayette, five against Arkansas State) lost him his job? North Texas was, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly average Sun Belt team last fall, but they just couldn't close the deal when they had the opportunity, and to say the least, they didn't start very quickly. Late in October, the Mean Green got running back Lance Dunbar untracked and picked up the pace on offense, but a) it was probably too late to save Dodge by that point, and b) Lance Dunbar can't play defense.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 94 92 98
RUSHING 85 80 86 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 102 101 103 79
Standard Downs 95 85 98 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 91 89 93 104
Redzone 105 101 106
Q1 Rk 85 1st Down Rk 100
Q2 Rk 98 2nd Down Rk 92
Q3 Rk 100 3rd Down Rk 99
Q4 Rk 92

Todd Dodge = spread = pass, pass, pass, right? Not so much. At least, not in 2010. With a powerful, underrated force in Dunbar at the running back position, the Mean Green were almost too conservative and predictable in 2010. They ran when you're supposed to run, passed when you're supposed to pass, ran plays at the typical rate, and rarely varied from the script. Dunbar, 2009's surprise POE leader and one of the most underrated backs in the country, took a long time to get rolling, in part, I'm assuming, because of turmoil at the quarterback position. Starter Nathan Tune dislocated his hip in the season's second game, and the snaps went to QB-turned-WR-turned QB Riley Dodge (Todd's son) and Derek Thompson, both sophomores. Then, Thompson broke his leg, and it was all Riley.

With a shaky passing game, defenses focused on Dunbar, and he rushed for 3.5 yards per carry or worse in four of the first five games after Tune's injury. With one-point losses to both Rice and UL-Lafayette, the Mean Green fell to 1-6 after a drubbing at the hands of Florida International, and Dodge was fired with a somewhat staggering 6-37 career record ("the worst in the history of major team sports at the school").

Upon Dodge's departure, however, North Texas' offense opened up. Riley Dodge became more comfortable behind center, and Dunbar ignited. He gained 941 yards in 128 carries (7.4/carry) over the last five games. North Texas' points per game in the last five: 33.8.

Of course, the late-season improvement didn't keep Riley in the green and white; he transferred after the season. Tune graduated too, so the focus goes to Thompson and a JUCO transfer, Brent Osborn. With Dunbar, the new QB won't need to pass for 300 yards per game -- and with McCarney the coach, he won't -- but competency is needed.

Other tidbits:

  • Two of the three leading wide receivers return: Darius Carey (38 for 524, 5 TD) and Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford (24 for 268, 2 TD). So does Michael Outlaw (41 for 472, 2 TD in 2009), who redshirted with an injury last year.
  • After two straight years of having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, the experience gets scaled back a bit this year. Two All-Sun Belt linemen -- Victor Gill and Esteban Santiago -- must be replaced.
  • Not surprisingly, since he is Dan McCarney and all, the focus is on toughness and physicality. Dunbar is a nice place to start, and really, the personnel probably fits McCarney's system better than I originally would have thought (even now, I think of "pass, pass, pass" with Dodge), but still ... work to be done.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 99 74 111
RUSHING 88 77 98 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 106 78 111 111
Standard Downs 102 64 114 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 91 89 95 89
Redzone 73 46 83
Q1 Rk 116 1st Down Rk 115
Q2 Rk 75 2nd Down Rk 47
Q3 Rk 104 3rd Down Rk 91
Q4 Rk 43

If the best way to measure respect for a defense is to look at opponents' play-calling and aggression, check this out: opponents attempted 118 first-down passes against North Texas, but they were not conservative, sideline-to-sideline passes -- they were downfield stabs. Opponents completed just 54 percent of first-down passes (62-for-114) with five sacks (4.2% sack rate) ... but the 62 completions went for 1,147 yards (18.5 per completion, 10.1 per pass), 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Knowing they could likely move the ball just fine on 2nd-and-10 if a pass failed, opponents repeatedly went for the dagger downfield. And they connected quite often.

This signaled at North Texas' largest problem. Like a lot of poor mid-major defenses, UNT was reasonably decent in terms of efficiency -- after all, almost half the time that opponents passed on first down, the result was a second-and-double-digits situation -- but they were absolutely horrendous when it came to preventing big plays. Thirty-four first-down passes went for double-digit yardage, as did 39 first-down rushes. The defensive line was relatively abhorrent, and everything flowed from that.

To that end, does it really matter that the Mean Green only return six starters, few of which made much of a statistical impact in 2010? Does it matter that they lose both starters at defensive tackle ... when the line was basically a sieve anyway? Their 2011 performance will be based on how quickly McCarney and incoming defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, who previously served four years as Mark Mangino's D.C. at Kansas, can tweak UNT's scheme, conditioning, skill, mentality, etc.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker Jeremy Phillips is probably the Mean Green's most proven returning playmaker. He racked up 53.5 tackles last year (6.5 TFL/sacks) with a team-leading two interceptions (when your team only picks off eight passes all season, you can lead your team with two). Gone, however, is fellow linebacker Craig Robertson (103.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks). Zachery Orr also returns to the LB corps -- he had 45.0 relatively empty tackles (1.0 TFL/sack, 2 passes broken up, 1 fumble recovery) last year.
  • The line was better at rushing the passer than standing up to the run in 2010, and with ends Brandon Akpunku (37.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) and K.C. Obi (25.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) returning, that could be the case again.
  • Royce Hill is a solid defensive back -- he had 36.5 tackles, six passes broken-up, a pick and a fumble recovery. He'll need quite a bit of help back there, however.

North Texas's 2010 Season Set to Music

"If We Make It Through December," by Merle Haggard. Todd Dodge did not.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Lowest Offensive Variability, 2010:
111. Wisconsin (32.2%)
112. Arkansas (31.9%)
113. UL-Lafayette (31.8%)
114. Hawaii (31.7%)
115. Louisiana Tech (29.5%)
116. North Texas (28.6%)
117. Nevada (28.2%)
118. Pittsburgh (24.5%)
119. Oklahoma State (23.2%)
120. Iowa State (23.0%)

Having a low variability does not portend quality offense or lack thereof, but it often suggests a strong identity. Running teams like Wisconsin and Nevada made the list, as did throwing teams like Hawaii. North Texas' 2010 identity was strong only in how milquetoast its tendencies were. Run when you're supposed to, throw when you're supposed to.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 116
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 106
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -3 / -5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.4

The YPP Margin suggests that UNT was a bit unlucky -- again, their F/+ from last season reflects a perfectly average Sun Belt team, only with a record (winless at home!) that suggests something far below average. The level of talent here doesn't necessarily reflect what you would think for a team based in, well, north Texas, but McCarney was probably a good hire. There is very little predictability when it comes to the background of incoming coaches, but hiring coaches with a modicum of success at the BCS level is as safe a bet as you can make. With a new stadium and a back capable of going for 2,000 yards (okay, 1,700), the Mean Green should make for an interesting team this coming fall ... if not a particularly good one. If only there were a 6'11, 400-pound fullback lying around somewhere...


* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.