No, that is not a surprise and the upcoming power rankings will likely confirm the beat writers’ opinions on this.
The title of Clear Best Team is mighty fluid, and shifts yearly. This is normal in college football but even more so in a league like CUSA. Just last year this was FAU, who was a bottom dweller two years before that. WKU had the mantle for a while, and Marshall before that.
That brings hope for everyone else, and even in this season when North Texas looks dominant on defense and really good on offense, one slip up on a day when a good team with a good game plan like La Tech or UAB can change everything. Hell, it could even be an Old Dominion. This league does not have very much separating 1 from 14, despite the numbers.
What has made North Texas so good? Yes, we know Mason Fine is the reigning CUSA Offensive Player of the year, but did you know he has been less-than amazing? The offense as a whole has had trouble moving the ball on the ground, and is relying on bursts of passing power to move the ball. Yes, that is a dream scenario for the offensively challenged in this league, but it is not the NT team we were expecting.
S&P+, one of the deeper advanced statistical tools that measures efficiency, explosiveness, field position and drive finishing has North Texas’ offense ranked 80th in the nation and the defense ranked 37th. You can see which unit is driving the success here. Last year they were flipped, with NT’s offense ranked 28th and the defense ranked 100th.
You can compare last year’s numbers with this year’s here for all the dirty details, but it is not so surprising if you have been watching closely. The primary issue has been the running game, which has struggled without the great Jeff Wilson. Coming into the year, the thinking was that Nic Smith would be the primary ball carrier, with support coming from JUCO transfer DeAndre Torrey. Instead, each of those two and newcomer Loren Easly have been the primary carrier for each of the last three games. The results have been iffy. Easly produced the best game of the three last week, as he piled on yardage against Arkansas, but the majority of those yards came on just a couple of carries.
There is only slight concern here, as North Texas has been able to grab first downs and TDs — Torrey had three 1-yard TDs against Incarnate Word — which was a big issue last season.
One way to solve this problem is to — counterintuitively — pass better. North Texas has been scoring, but not as explosively as last year, when Turner Smiley, Jalen Guyton were tearing open defenses deep. By the end of September last year, the Mean Green had 14 40+ yard plays and only 1 so far this year. Sure, there are still two games to play and more opportunities in front of them, but it is an indicator of the difficulties North Texas has encountered. Add to those the fact that the defense and special teams are providing short fields, and there is little opportunity to hit big plays.
Again, this is not a concern, but just a note. North Texas gets its two toughest matchups at home in La Tech and FAU, and so any lingering concerns should be mitigated by the home field advantage.
The real catalyst this season has been the play of linebackers EJ Ejiya, and Brandon Garner. The duo has combined to be the nation’s 3rd leading havoc1 linebacking corps — Ejiya leads the nation in Tackles for Loss while Garner is right behind him with 4.5. There were whispers of hope that NT Bryce English would make an impact along the defensive line, and while he has not put up any major stats of note, the entire defense seems to be aligned better.
The pressure on the QB and ability to slow the run (NT is allowing 91 yards rushing per game, and is top-ten in the advanced numbers against the run) has allowed the secondary to feat on wayward passes by playing downhill. Senior cornerback Kemon Hall has two pick-sixes this season and has been bullying talented receivers.
Nate Brooks, the other starting corner, struggled last season and was memorably picked on by UAB’s AJ Erdely for big yards, is back to his old form. Brooks and Hall have three interceptions each, while safety Khairi Muhammad has 2 himself, on the other safety has one. North Texas is leading the nation in interceptions with nine. That number was helped by Arkansas’s struggling quarterbacks throwing six in the last game.
It was not for lack of talent, as Arkansas has some very good offensive players, but struggle to put it all together. North Texas has been bullying teams that are do not have a complete offense put together.
For the rest of C-USA, that poses an issue. UAB and La Tech have the most complete offenses at this point on the Mean Green schedule, although if FIU can continue to threaten from all areas, they might have enough on both sides to challenge. There is, of course, a lot of season left to play. North Texas has yet to play a league game and there is plenty of time for everyone to find adjustments and counter-adjustments.
For now, North Texas is the best team in the league and it does not look close.
- Via SBNation’s Glossary: Havoc is “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.” ↩