The bad news for the University of North Texas football team and their fans is that they have to spend the weekend in Albuquerque. The good news is that, should the Mean Green knock off 10-2 Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday afternoon, they'll do something no other North Texas team has done before.
UNT, then known as North Texas State Normal College, first fielded a football team in 1913. In the 105 years since, they've won as many as nine games seven times, including this year. A win tomorrow would push the 2018 Mean Green's record to 10-3, making this year's North Texas team the first in school history to rack up double-digit wins.
"It's a credit to our coaches and our players for all the hard work and sacrifices they've made for the last 11 months," UNT head coach Seth Littrell said Tuesday. "We have a tremendous challenge in front of us with Utah State. They're very deserving of their Top 25 ranking [No. 23 in the Coaches Poll], and there is no doubt in my mind that they're the top team we've faced so far."
Littrell and his players opened 2018 facing high expectations, a rarity for a program that's won only two bowl games in its history. After finishing 9-5 in 2017, UNT returned 17 starters, including Mason Fine, the state of Texas' most accomplished college quarterback. If they could get past the University of Arkansas the third week of the season, the Mean Green had a chance to go undefeated and finish the season nationally ranked for the first time in school history.
UNT knocked off Arkansas, blowing past the Razorbacks thanks in part to the best trick play of the year, but it faltered down the stretch, dropping a home game to Louisiana Tech and losing to Old Dominion and Alabama-Birmingham on the road.
Despite blowing a chance to play in the school's first-ever major bowl, UNT recovered to win its last two games of the season, giving themselves a shot at win No. 10 in Walter White's hometown.
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Cashing in before a national TV audience in 2018's first bowl is essential, because North Texas has the personnel it needs to take another step forward in 2019.
Already this month, Littrell has rejected overtures from Kansas State and the Big 12, choosing to remain in Denton. Fine will be back, as will nine other starters from the Mean Green's potent offense. Arkansas isn't on the schedule in 2019, but UNT will travel to Berkeley to take on the Cal Bears on Sept. 14 and will get the Houston Cougars at home two weeks later.
UNT is a team on the verge, close to being a national player for the first time since Mean Joe Green was on campus. On Saturday, they can take the next step in Albuquerque.
North Texas meets Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl at 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.