Five Burning Questions: SMU vs. North Texas

Scott talked with Scout Midlands recruiting anaylst Gabe Brooks about SMU's matchup against North Texas.

Pony Stampede: The Mean Green hung 43 points on the Mustangs last season, but do they have the firepower to put up number close to that in 2015?

Gabe Brooks: If you look back at that game, North Texas' ability to score 43 points had less to do with proverbial "firepower" as it did UNT's ability to force turnovers. North Texas forced and recovered three fumbles, while picking off two passes for +5 in the turnover category. The takeaways, combined with a grinding running game that yielded 245 yards on 4.5 yards per carry, meant that SMU's pass-happy offense from early-season 2014 was actually at a -13 disadvantage in offensive snaps. Not something you see often for offenses that throw as much as that one.

Additionally, one of North Texas' four touchdowns came on defense. Two of the other three came on "drives" of 14 and 21 yards, respectively. North Texas' longer drives ended in five field goals (lasting 9, 11, 6, 7, 8 plays each).

Looking forward to this weekend's matchup, North Texas will try to do the same thing. There was massive turnover on the offensive line -- only center Kaydon Kirby returns to the starting lineup -- but the backfield is deep and as talented as North Texas has had probably since the Lance Dunbar days. The receiving corps is similar, with proven veterans including Carlos Harris and tight end Marcus Smith, plus a redshirt freshman, Tee Goree, who the fan base may have placed more hype around as any young prospect on the team. And despite that O-line turnover, it seems that the staff feels pretty decent about the guys up front.

The question when it comes to gauging North Texas' firepower potential is the quarterback position. Andrew McNulty has some experience, but there's no doubt based on last year's performance, there's not a quarterback on the roster that has yet proven he can win games with his arm.

North Texas' ability to score depends enormously on the turnover battle. That's just how UNT's system works. It's an old-school, defense+running game+field position style that works quite well as long as you minimize your own mistakes, something North Texas did a great job of in 2013, but not so much in 2014.

PS: Carlos Harris emerged as a viable receiver for the Mean Green last season (71 receptions, 869 yards), but does Andrew McNulty have the ablility to get him the ball consistently?

GB: If McNulty has time, something that cannot yet be guaranteed given the offseason O-line turnover, he can find open receivers, especially if he's being supported by the running game. I know that sounds obvious, but it cannot be emphasized enough that the key to any potential offensive success North Texas might enjoy comes down to the running game.

So, to answer the question, I'd say yes, McNulty can consistently get Harris the ball ... but that yes is contingent on North Texas not needing him to get Harris the ball.

PS: Despite losing 7 games after beating SMU in 2014, should the Mean Green feel confident going into their matchup vs. SMU in Ford Stadium this weekend considering the outcome of last year's game?

GB: I think North Texas should enter the game with a reasonable amount of confidence. As you alluded, UNT was a last-second Hail Mary away from shutting out SMU 43-0 when the teams met last year.

But these are two very different teams with very different circumstances since that point. That beating prompted the end of the June Jones era and since SMU hired Chad Morris, the buzz around the program has been hard to ignore.

That said, there are still a lot of players on these teams from that 37-point North Texas win, so if the Mean Green enters this game feeling good, it's hard to blame them. I don't think one recruiting class, as solid as it was, has put SMU at a talent advantage over UNT, which has a strength-in-numbers approach to several positions on both sides of the ball (RB's, WR's, DE's, DT's, OLB's, MLB's most notably). The key for North Texas is to not be overconfident because I think we saw for about two quarters in the opener against Baylor how much improved SMU can be for stretches compared to the team UNT saw this time a year ago.

Confidence aside, North Texas cannot make mistakes. It doesn't matter if UNT is playing SMU or Rice or Portland State or Iowa or Tennessee ... the game plan is relatively constant: value the ball (this includes forcing turnovers), value field position, get off the field on third down.

PS: If Matt Davis gets hobbled like he did vs. Baylor, how do you think Davis or Darrell Colbert would perform at at the helm vs. North Texas?

GB: That's a very interesting question and one that SMU fans may not want to ponder after seeing just how effective Davis could be at times against an elite opponent.

The tempo aspect of SMU's offense will be an interesting angle to watch throughout the game because of that type of scheme's ability to get defensive players tired. One of North Texas' biggest strengths is its depth in the front seven. Both end spots, both tackle spots, and all three linebacker positions have players on the first and second strings who can be effective, so at the very least, UNT should be able to stay fresh in the front seven.

With either of those quarterbacks, but especially Davis, North Texas must play smart because dual-threat quarterbacks can hurt the Mean Green defense. I'm sure UNT would rather either QB stay in the pocket and go through his progressions as opposed to improvising. North Texas' top two sack leaders, Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson, are back, along with players such as Jarrian Roberts, Malik Dilonga, Andy Flusche, and Austin Orr who all flashed the ability at different times to pressure the quarterback from their respective D-line spots.

Courtland Sutton could have a big impact on this game because of the matchup problem he creates regardless of who's playing quarterback for him.

PS: After giving up 56 points to Baylor, what are your expectations for this SMU defense in game number 2?

GB: Well it will certainly be a much different task that the SMU defense is asked to face in this game.

While UNT employs some tempo concepts, it's nothing like those Baylor uses, where it's so fast and so vertical passing game-oriented that it becomes overwhelming at some point because of the level of execution and the talent on the field.

All those coaching phrases such as gap integrity and leverage and sound tackling will be keys for SMU because the Mustangs will see a team that wants to establish the run and get its rebuilt offensive line confident in front of a group of backs who have the potential to be quite good. Sophomore Jeffrey Wilson has a lot of people excited. Antoinne Jimmerson is a veteran change-of-pace back who led the team in rushing in 2014. There's also sophomore Willy Ivery, another in the 2014 signing class with Goree and Wilson who has fans excited for his future. Plus there's Andrew Tucker, the younger brother of former TCU standout Matthew Tucker and another East Texan like Wilson, Ivery, and Goree, among about 10 others on the roster.

Whereas Baylor makes you defend so much space both vertically and horizontally, the most important battleground vs. North Texas will be between the hashes in the box. North Texas has guys who can stretch the field -- namely, Harris and Goree -- but UNT's ability to threaten any opposing defense with that aspect of its offense depends greatly on a successful rushing attack.

If UNT isn't sloppy and protects the ball -- IF, as UNT was tied for 74th in turnovers per game (1.8) a year ago -- we should find out a lot about SMU's front seven, both in talent and in depth.

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