Scouting Iowa football's next opponent: 5 questions about North Texas answered

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football is coming off an emotional high with a 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State, and now a night game looms Sept. 23 against defending Big Ten Conference champion Penn State.

But the 2-0 Hawkeyes have to win Saturday against 1-1 North Texas (2:30 p.m., ESPN2) to set up a showdown under the Kinnick Stadium lights against a top-five opponent.

What to expect from North Texas?

We checked in with Brett Vito, the Mean Green beat reporter for The Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News. You can follow Brett on Twitter (@brettvito) leading up to Saturday's game.

Here's how he responded to five questions we asked about this week's matchup. Iowa is a 21½-point favorite.

North Texas players celebrate an interception in last week's 54-32 loss to SMU. The Mean Green deploy an "Air Raid" offense and average 580.5 yards a game.

The last time Iowa faced North Texas (a 62-16 win in 2015), former Hawkeye player and assistant Dan McCarney was the head coach. How much better or different is this program two years later under Seth Littrell?

There’s no doubt that North Texas is better than it was in 2015. The question is: How much better?

UNT reached its pinnacle under McCarney — one of the best guys to come through Denton in years — in 2013. The Mean Green went 9-4 that year and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The surprise was how quickly UNT’s program fell apart after one of the best seasons in program history. It went 4-8 in 2014 and bottomed out in 2015 (1-11).

UNT lost five of its final six games last season and was pummeled by SMU 54-32 last week in its only game against an FBS team this year. My guess is UNT will rebound and make a run at six games in Conference USA, but the jury is still out.

Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine, who runs Littrell's "Air Raid" offense, threw for 424 yards in that loss to SMU. Is he the real deal? 

Fine is another source of debate among UNT observers, but most people see him as the real deal, myself included. He's a smaller guy at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but he can wing it around and is a smart and composed player.

Fine was the two-time player of the year in Oklahoma. If he was bigger, he’d be playing for a Power Five program. He might never get to the point where he is the best quarterback in the league, but he will end up being one of the better ones.

The Mean Green made the Heart of Dallas Bowl a year ago with a 5-7 regular season. Is there confidence that this team has the horses to get back to another bowl game?

There’s optimism, that’s for sure. UNT does have some really good players who stack up well at the Conference USA level. 

Jeffery Wilson has had an injury-plagued career at UNT, but has still managed to rack up more than 2,000 rushing yards. Safety Kishawn McClain is another solid player with NFL aspirations. Cornerback Nate Brooks was a preseason all-league pick.

UNT has some areas of concern as well, including its offensive line. It will all come down to if UNT can win its 50-50 games. UNT did exactly that last year, pulling out an overtime win over Rice and posting a huge victory over Southern Miss when the Golden Eagles’ quarterback was out.

From North Texas’ perspective, what are the biggest areas of concern in facing the Hawkeyes?

This probably sounds like I am ducking the question, but the most important thing for UNT is getting out of town without getting too many key players hurt.

UNT is already down one vital piece in defensive tackle Bryce English, who broke his foot in preseason practice. The argument about whether more players from Group of Five programs get hurt in games against Power Five juggernauts is a hotly debated one. If you ask me, there is a reason they are called "body-bag games."

UNT’s margin of error is not that big this year. It can’t afford to have that margin wiped out in a game it has little chance to win.

The Mean Green’s other big concern is probably falling behind early and seeing the game get way out of hand. Getting embarrassed by Iowa isn’t what UNT needs in a Year 2 as it sees conference rivals pulling upsets against Power Five opponents (Texas-San Antonio over Baylor; Middle Tennessee over Syracuse).

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How do you see this game playing out?

UNT was competitive for most if its game at Georgia (a 45-21 loss in 2013). I just don’t think UNT has the horses this year. Iowa will grind UNT down offensively and shut down the Mean Green’s running game with its size and strength in the front seven.

UNT will probably hit a few big plays because of its speed and athleticism early before Iowa pulls away for something along the lines of a 42-17 win.