Beginning next year, North Texas will play games against in-state rivals on a yearly basis as a member of Conference USA.
UNT’s chances to play games that capture the attention of fans in the state will be rare until then, just as they have been in the past.
That’s what makes UNT’s game at Houston on Saturday so important.
The Mean Green has a chance to post a signature win over an in-state rival that plays at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, something UNT hasn’t done since rolling past SMU 24-6 at home in 2006.
Beating Houston would certainly fall into that big-win category.
The Cougars won their first 12 games last season and were ranked No. 7 nationally before falling to Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game. Houston then bounced back to beat Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl.
Houston hasn’t been the same since, largely due to the departure of head coach Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M and quarterback Case Keenum to the NFL.
Even so, UNT head coach Dan McCarney sees Saturday’s game as a big opportunity for the Mean Green.
“We are trying to garner some respect for our program each day,” McCarney said Monday during the Sun Belt Conference weekly coaches teleconference. “It’s a slow but steady process.We are doing everything we can to get where Houston has been. When you think of Houston football, you think of success and doing it the right way. That is where we are trying to get.”
UNT took a significant step in that process last Saturday by beating Florida Atlantic 20-14 on the road.
The Mean Green is off to its best start since 2005 at 2-3 and is still in the thick of the Sun Belt title chase at 1-1 in league play.
In some ways, Houston is in a similar position to UNT, which is still early in its rebuilding process under McCarney.
The Cougars have spent the early part of the season trying to find their way under new head coach Tony Levine, a process that hasn’t been easy.
Houston dropped its first three games, including a stunning season-opening loss to Texas State.
The Cougars have slowly rebounded since and knocked off Rice 35-14 on Saturday for their first win of the season.
“The thing I’m excited about is that we’re a young team,” Levine said after the game. “I’m going to enjoy the next two months watching this football team grow up in front of our eyes. To go out and prepare like they did the last two weeks and come away with the victory gives them confidence, and that’s what we need at this point.”
Houston knocked off UNT 48-23 last season in the first game at Apogee Stadium.
The Cougars don’t look anything like the team that captured the attention of the country last season, but they are a team UNT won’t overlook.
“The biggest thing to me is that Houston is a team that everyone across the country respects,” McCarney said. “There has been so many positive things written about them last year. They were one of the two or three big stories in all of college football. They came within the conference championship game of going to a BCS bowl game. They have an outstanding program.”
UNT is trying to emulate Houston while rebuilding under McCarney and took a significant step with its win over FAU. The Mean Green played one of its best games in recent memory defensively in the victory, forcing three turnovers and posting five sacks against the Owls.
Posting a win over Houston would give UNT back-to-back wins for the first time since 2004, not to mention bolster its recruiting efforts in Texas.
Houston hasn’t been a primary recruiting area for UNT in recent years, but it is one the team’s staff actively mines for talent.
“It doesn’t get any better than Texas high school football,” McCarney said. “We are all aware of that. Houston is right in the middle of it. We recruit that city like everyone in America does. There are so many players, good coaches and good programs.”
A win could help UNT’s recruiting efforts and end a three-game losing streak against the Cougars. UNT is 0-3 against Houston since a 28-0 win in 1975.
“We have not beaten Houston since Hayden Fry sat in this chair,” McCarney said of the legendary former UNT head coach. “That is a lot of years of losing. We are trying to turn that around.”
ULL adjusting to new QB
Louisiana-Lafayette will likely be in the process of adjusting to playing with a new quarterback when the Ragin’ Cajuns come to UNT for a rare weekday night game Oct. 16, which will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
Blaine Gautier, a fifth-year senior who led ULL to a 3-1 start and first place in the Sun Belt standings at 2-0, broke two bones in his throwing hand in a win over Florida International last Saturday.
The injury will require surgery.
“If he makes it back, who knows how he will be able to grip the ball,” ULL head coach Mark Hudspeth said. “I will try to play him somewhere to get him on the field.”
Gautier could end up at safety if he returns this season, leaving Terrance Broadway to take over at quarterback.
Broadway, a Houston transfer, has played well as a backup, throwing for 462 yards and two touchdowns.
He completed 15 of his 19 pass attempts for 228 yards and a touchdown in ULL’s 48-20 win over FIU.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .