North Texas is 1-3 on the season, with the only win against FCS Northwestern State. That puts them firmly in pre-2021 UTEP territory. This is a program that competed for a league title, broke a lot of team offensive records and was recruiting at the top of the league for a bit. Now, Seth Littrell is firmly in the struggle bus. North Texas has lost nine games in the last two seasons (won five 1) and it isn’t looking like there will be any change coming.
This last week, for a brief second, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs seemed as if they could pick the score. It reminded me of Street Fighter with Ken being Tech and North Texas being the car.
The silver lining was that the defense, which was a guaranteed career-day for running backs, has been improved under new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Now, if you look at the numbers you will not be overly impressed. Last year: 6.94 yards per play. This year: 6.06. To the trained football-appreciating eye, it is clearly better. They compete! They know where they are supposed to stand! They tackle!
Given a quarter of the offensive output from 2020, this team would be in a different category of conversation. As it is, the offense is well, crap. The scoring is under-30 points per game and that is a first in Littrell’s reign since 2016, when the team averaged around 24 with a freshman QB. Before that, it was 15 per game, and that is the territory in which we occupy as of late September. The Mean Green are sub-20 points per game (19.8) and that means a regression has occurred.
The cause, of course, is poor QB play. I write “of course” because generally speaking in modern college football QB play is the thing. North Carolina transfer Jace Ruder, a former 4-star guy, is playing awfully. He is seeing ghosts, throwing a stare-him-down interception on the first play against two weekends ago. It was quite astounding. The nest week against Tech, he was coached up with the phrase “Jace, you’ve got to put the ball in bounds”. The ball in question sailed over everyone’s heads, out of bounds, to no one, least of all his streaking wide receiver.
Now, the offensive line play has not been stellar, and neither have the pass-catchers been uninjured or reliable. Like most things in this world of ours, there are multiple causes for the effect. When no one is playing well, it exacerbate the poor play of the most important player. His backup, Austin Aune, has been better and worse than Jace Ruder in spots. If this sounds familiar to you this was the case last year but swap out current Kansas QB Jason Bean for Ruder and you have the same scenario. The difference, to some snarky twitterers, is new Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jaelon Darden and it makes sense. Last season Darden grabbed 19 of 28 touchdowns caught. He bailed out the offense many times and he would certainly help get the team out of the jams in this season.
That is not all of it. Obviously, having a game-changer is going to make your offense better, but this team is missing a lot more than that. Namely, a plan. The team looks hesitant, the coaches look exasperated, the players look lost, and the team looks bad. Darden would no doubt make this team better, but I do not know that the supporting cast is even as good as it was last year. I imagine that the highest scoring team in the league of 2020 was scouted well by all who had NT on the schedule this year. A well-scouted team looks like it has been figured, the QB play is poor, the line has regressed, and there is no one to bail out the squad when it all breaks down.
That is roughly how you get to be a bad offensive team.
Is this just about talent?
No, not necessarily. It is about getting the best use of talent. Littrell went to a more vertical-centric system around 2018 that saw NT increase the yardage while also seeing a regression in wins. Mason Fine, all-time stat-holder for a lot of quarterback records, saw a little bit of a dip in his final season (that first year where the switch happened) and things have not bounced back since. Chalk it up to Fine being a lucky find. Sure. Chalk it up to the rotating cast of coaches — including QB coaches — the last couple of seasons. Sure. Not everyone can do a plug-and-play thing like Nick Saban and keep winning with an all-new cast of coaches year-in and year-out.
Is this about the injuries?
Yes, there are a lot of injuries to some top-line guys. Jyaire Shorter, Tommy Bush and Deonte Simpson are all injured or were in various states of injury and will likely make the differences when it teams look to pressure with man-coverage and dare the squad to throw. Also Deandre Torrey is slowed down, though he has played a bit. Add in the absence of Oscar Adaway III and there is a level of talent that could make a difference here and there. Is that all of the 12 points per game missing? It could be. Still, that is little excuse for the QBs to miss wide open guys by five yards. It is not an excuse to stare down defenders and throw an interception right at their chests.
Is this about the coach?
Littrell has made a lot of changes on his staff. He hired Bodie Reeder and then fired him a year later. His QB coach hire had legal troubles and was forced to step down. He’s promoted from within and took on more of the responsibilities and that has seen some mixed results. The team has put up big yards and set a ton of records the last few years, so there is some sense this is an anomaly. However, the aspects of his offenses (or his staff’s offenses) the last few seasons that have struggled have not improved. Namely, the short-yardage struggles, the big game struggles, the slow starts, and the empty calorie yardages are all still there.
This is not the greatest time to be looking for a coach. Littrell has a big contract and revenue is down after a terrible 2020 Covid year. The college football landscape is shifting and the programs that have the most stability are best positioned to make a move up or at the very least dropping down into a terrible situation. A good portion of that is out of the control of a given coach, so no one can blame Seth Littrell if the Big 12 doesn’t come calling. There are more things involved with inviting a program up or down or whatever direction you consider moving out of CUSA is. Athletic Director Wren Baker has built facilities and encouraged donations and the hoops squad just won the league and won an NCAA Tournament game. Things are looking up across the athletics department. Just not in football.
This is the nature of the sport. When we wrote about the precarious position that former UTSA coach Frank Wilson was in a couple of seasons ago, we noted that a major part of the job is finding a quarterback. Seth Littrell opted for Austin Aune, Jason Bean, and now the talented-but-mistake prone Jace Ruder over say, Austin Kendall or Bailey Zappe, to name a couple of recent transfers who have performed well.
North Texas fans are roughly divided into “fire this dude now” and “belief is shaky”. The next part of the schedule does not get much lighter and there is very little reason to consider that Littrell will be able to coach up some wins in that short time. If nothing changes (and again, it doesn’t look like it will) it will be hard to parade Littrell to the donors and season ticket holders to drum up excitement and more cash.
If you want any factors to consider when placing your bets, note that Baker waited out the contract of former NT basketball coach Tony Benford, watching NT endure yet another awful season, before hiring the great Grant McCasland. He did not hire Seth Littrell, for what it is worth, but has enjoyed a good relationship with him while giving him raises and plenty of support. Littrell has earned his money and has done well relatively to the previous coaches in a lot of aspects 2 but a fourth losing season in six years in charge is hard to defend.