Two years ago, after the late-season drubbing of lowly Tennessee-Chattanooga, Nick Saban quipped in his postgame press conference, "Well, we had to play somebody." As a 47-point underdog to Alabama, consider North Texas another "somebody."
After spending several years as the cream of the Sun Belt crop under Doug Dickey, the North Texas football program imploded mid-decade and has been an autumn abomination ever since. Dickey was dismissed after a disastrous 2-9 season in 2006, and facing a critical crossroads in program history, North Texas made a largely indefensible decision by hiring Todd Dodge, a coach with no previous college coaching experience who was fresh from the high school prep ranks. Dodge was supposed to light up the scoreboard and energize the fan base with his high-octane Air Raid offense, but not surprisingly his offense never lived up to early expectations and his defenses were absolutely horrendous. After only six wins in four years, North Texas finally put him out of his misery last October.
Hoping to revitalize the program to at least some semblance of respectability, North Texas hired Dan McCarney last November. Alabama fans will probably remember McCarney well from the 2001 Independence Bowl. That late December trip to Shreveport notwithstanding, McCarney spent more than a decade as the head coach of Iowa State and had some moderate degree of success, but eventually he was dismissed in Ames when his program swooned largely to an inability to attract quality recruits to flyover country. He rejuvenated his career by spending four years as a defensive line coach in Florida, and now he finds himself with a new lease on his coaching career.
While North Texas may have some long-term optimism, in the interim this team looks little, if any, better than in years past. Making the transition from the Air Raid to a more traditional pro-set looks to be difficult, and the running game to date has been non-existent. The passing game is at least somewhat respectable, but the defense has continued to be ridiculously porous and on the whole it looks to be yet another long, losing season in Denton as McCarney hopes to rebuild from the ashes.
Two years ago Alabama obliterated North Texas in the third week of the season in a contest that was little more than a glorified scrimmage in preparation of a high-octane Arkansas team coming to Tuscaloosa the following weekend, and that same general formula expects to hold true tomorrow. Anything is possible, of course, but it would probably take either the direction intervention of the Football Gods or a team-wide pre-game drinking binge of Hangover proportions to make this a close contest. North Texas is here because, well, we had to play somebody and they needed the paycheck. Football necessity meets economic necessity.
The more interesting storyline tomorrow figures to be the performance and development of several young players. Phillip Sims figures to see significant playing time tomorrow at quarterback, and cupcake opponent or not he needs a strong showing if he hopes to have any real chance of unseating AJ McCarron in the weeks ahead. Likewise, Barrett Jones should start at left tackle tomorrow, but true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio will see a good deal of playing time and can help convince the coaching staff that he is ready to be inserted into the starting lineup. Darius Hanks will also make his season debut, and for many other true freshman on the proverbial fence tomorrow may be the final chance to avoid a redshirt season.
The obvious caveat, though, as is always the case in games of this nature, is that Alabama has far more to lose tomorrow than it has to gain. Injuries are far and away the most pressing concern, and with arguably the most difficult game of the regular season a mere eight days away, even the slightest bumps and bruises could prove costly against the Hogs. For the meaningful contributors in crimson and white, the goal is to get in the game, get the obligatory work done, and then get out of the zone of danger as soon as possible.
For Alabama, tomorrow marks the final tune-up before embarking on the long and brutal grind that is the modern day SEC. Following the cupcake tomorrow evening, 'Bama will face seven SEC opponents in the ensuing eight weeks and while some of those opponents will present no major challenges to the Tide, longstanding precedent ought to tell any informed observer that wins in this conference rarely come easy and upsets are commonplace occurrences. Whatever lingering issues exist in Tuscaloosa, the Tide must rectify them on short notice.
Hope for the best.