Football: Quartet of elders hungry for winning season

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Hardly a day goes by when the last four men standing from the class of 2008 don’t sit around and talk about all that has transpired in their five seasons at North Texas.

Coleman Feeley, Aaron Fortenberry, Jeremy Phillips and Tevinn Cantly never have a shortage of topics to mull over.

There are the big wins and losses, close ones and blowouts, near misses and a coaching change.

The quartet seems to have experienced about everything there is in college football with one notable exception — a winning season with a trip to a bowl game.

Their final opportunity essentially begins Saturday with UNT’s Sun Belt Conference opener against Troy, a game that might be the most important league opener of their careers.

UNT is 1-2 with losses to national powers LSU and Kansas State already in the books and a two-game road trip coming up following its game against Troy.

A loss to the Trojans wouldn’t kill UNT’s chances to end a string of seven straight losing seasons, but it would leave the Mean Green a tough road to travel to get to the bowl game those fifth-year seniors have never experienced.

“It’s hard to go through a college career and never experience a bowl game,” Feeley said. “None of us want to get out of here and say, ‘I played college ball and played hard, but we didn’t win.’ Nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to leave college without any hardware.”

No one has left UNT with hardware in a long time, not since the freshmen who took a redshirt season when the Mean Green won the Sun Belt title in 2004 completed their five years in the program in 2008.

UNT kept its dream of being bowl-eligible alive last season until falling at home to Western Kentucky in Week 11. The Mean Green lost four games by a combined 13 points in 2010, when UNT finished 3-9 and changed coaches.

Dan McCarney took over for Todd Dodge, who was fired in the middle of the season and replaced by interim head coach Mike Canales.

Those close calls stung for Feeley and the rest of the Mean Green’s fifth-year seniors.

“Every year we felt like we could have done it and regretted that we didn’t,” Cantly said. “If you ask any of the guys who have been around a while, there is definitely a change. There is no reason we shouldn’t go all the way this year. All of the guys here have bought in. Some of us, it took a little longer. Some of the other guys in our class aren’t here anymore. They got kicked off or quit.”

UNT is hoping the players left will band together and make a run in what is expected to be a highly competitive league race.

Louisiana-Monroe, a team that was expected to finish in the middle of the Sun Belt pack, upset No. 8 Arkansas and took Auburn to overtime.

Western Kentucky picked up a huge win over in-state rival Kentucky for its first win over a team from a BCS automatic qualifying conference, not to mention its first win over a team from the Southeastern Conference.

And while the wins might not be as impressive, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee beat Memphis, while Florida International edged Akron for the kind of nonconference wins Sun Belt teams have struggled to post in the past.

“There is no doubt that we are improved this year,” McCarney said of the Sun Belt. “You can see that with the level of competition, the wins over teams in other conferences and the teams in our league that played well against nationally ranked teams. It’s going to be a tremendous race.”

It’s one UNT was not expected to be a factor in at the beginning of the season.

The Mean Green was picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll, ahead of only Florida Atlantic and South Alabama. FAU didn’t win a Sun Belt game last year, while USA is still in the process of moving up from the Football Championship Subdivision to join the league.

UNT had just two players named to the preseason All-Sun Belt team: offensive lineman Cyril Lemon and punter Will Atterberry.

UNT has looked better than it was projected to be in nonconference play. The Mean Green hung with Kansas State and rolled past Texas Southern, a team it was expected to handle easily and did.

The challenge now will be translating that success to its final season in the Sun Belt. UNT will play with a target on its back in its final season in the league before moving to Conference USA.

In the past, those obstacles might have been too much to overcome. The four longest-tenured players on UNT’s team believe that this year will be different, largely because of the change in the program’s culture under McCarney.

“We think we can win the conference, especially with the defense that we have,” Cantly said. “We feel like we should have the most dominant defense in the league. We don’t have any weak links like we used to have.”

The younger players on UNT’s roster can sense how important it is to the team’s fifth-year seniors to make the most of their last season.

“This is their last shot,” junior quarterback Derek Thompson said. “I know how important it is to them. They have been through some tough stretches. We want to do it for them.”

UNT’s players and coaches acknowledge it won’t be easy, a sentiment echoed by the coaches of the teams that have jumped into the national headlines with upsets.

“We have always said that any team can beat anyone in this conference on any given Saturday or Tuesday or whatever day you play on,” WKU head coach Willie Taggart said. “We have some really good teams in this conference.”

UNT’s quartet of fifth-year seniors know that is the case and are confident they have the ability to make their last year one to remember.

“The four of us are always talking about it,” Feeley said. “The things that we have been through with the hard losses and the blowouts, we don’t want to go out without winning.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .


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