North Texas will jump back into Sun Belt Conference play Tuesday night in a game against Louisiana-Lafayette, one the Mean Green sees as a grand opportunity to get into the conference title race.
UNT (2-4, 1-1 SBC) wasn’t expected to be a factor before the season began and didn’t change that perception during a nonconference season that concluded with a tough 44-21 loss to Houston on Saturday.
Head coach Dan McCarney and his players said Tuesday that they still believe they can be a factor this year.
“We are not 0-6. We are not 1-5. We are 1-1,” McCarney said. “We have one loss. So do some other teams. The race has really just begun.”
The Sun Belt champion has run the table in two of the last three years, including last season when Arkansas State went 8-0.
There are only three teams left that could achieve the same feat this year, including ULL. The Ragin’ Cajuns (4-1) have won their first two Sun Belt games.
Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe are both 1-0 in league play.
Every other team in the league has at least one loss. Preseason favorite Florida International has been perhaps the biggest surprise so far in Sun Belt play, and not in a positive way.
FIU has lost five straight and at 0-2 could be out of the Sun Belt race that suddenly looks intriguing.
ULL, WKU and ULM all received votes in this week’s USA Today coaches poll.
“Everyone still believes and wants to work hard,” UNT defensive end K.C. Obi said. “Conference play is like a whole new season.”
UNT’s biggest win thus far came in its last Sun Belt game, a 20-14 win over Florida Atlantic that evened the Mean Green’s league record at 1-1.
Even that win couldn’t completely wipe away the sting UNT still feels from dropping its Sun Belt opener to Troy, 14-7. The Mean Green had plenty of opportunities to find a way to pull out a close game, but failed to convert.
The Trojans (3-2, 2-1) could be on their way to a bowl game, especially if they can beat WKU on Thursday night, but there is little doubt that UNT’s league slate is about to get a lot tougher.
South Alabama is the only team of the six remaining on UNT’s schedule that doesn’t have a winning record.
ULL could be the best team left on the Mean Green’s slate.
The Ragin’ Cajuns lost to Oklahoma State 65-24 but have beaten every other team they have faced this season by at least 13 points, including Troy, a traditional Sun Belt power.
ULL beat San Diego State in last season’s New Orleans Bowl.
“When you win, you have consistency in your program, and win a bowl game, it carries over to spring, to summer to the next season,” McCarney said. “They are a confident football team.”
The roll that ULL is on makes the Ragin’ Cajuns a favorite in the Sun Belt at this point. UNT is hoping to change that by knocking off ULL and becoming a factor in the Sun Belt chase over the next few weeks.
It’s a race McCarney believes will be highly competitive because of the improvement he sees in the league.
“Having three teams get votes in the Top 25 poll is an indication of how good the league is and where we are at after the first half of the college football season,” McCarney said. “Because of the wins out of conference and the competition that we have all played, I think more eyes are on the Sun Belt Conference.”
McCarney on Dunbar
McCarney has been working the phone this week, trying to become the latest in a long line of people offering congratulations to Lance Dunbar.
The former UNT running back, who is the school’s all-time rushing leader with 4,224 yards, was activated by the Cowboys from their practice squad.
Dunbar is expected to play on special teams.
The opportunity is one on which McCarney believes Dunbar can capitalize because of the way his talents fit a special teams role.
“He’s fast, he tough, he’s athletic and he can play in space,” McCarney said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he excels on special teams with the Dallas Cowboys. We talk to our guys about it all the time. They want to know on the next level if you can contribute on special teams.”
Former UNT running back Patrick Cobbs followed a similar path to the NFL after setting the school record for career rushing yards that Dunbar later broke.
Cobbs played on special teams while he was at UNT.
Dunbar did not. He returned only two kicks his senior year.
UNT leaned heavily on Dunbar to power its offense and didn’t risk his health by playing him extensively on special teams.
“It will be cool for our guys to turn on the TV and see Lance go cover a punt and a kickoff,” McCarney said. “They will be proud of him and laugh at him at the same time because they never saw him do that here at North Texas.”
UNT in good position
UNT saw its five-game winning streak come to an end with a 1-1 tie against Florida International last week but is still in good position in the Sun Belt title chase.
The Mean Green (10-3-2, 5-0-1) is only a half a game behind Middle Tennessee (11-3, 6-0) in the conference standings heading into a two-game road trip to Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock this week.
If UNT can sweep those matches, it will head into a home game against MTSU on Oct. 18 assured of a chance to move past the Blue Raiders in the Sun Belt standings.
“I really want it to come down to the Middle [Tennessee] game,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said. “They are playing as well as we are, and offensively they might be as potent. I think the top two teams in the league will play when we host them.”
UNT’s hopes to go into that game unbeaten and untied in conference play came to an end when Karla Pineda scored the Mean Green’s only goal against FIU in a game Hedlund said his team controlled.
“We had 31 shots to their seven and 14 corners to their two and a goal that was called back, and I still don’t know why it was called back,” Hedlund said. “We threw everything at them. Their keeper made some huge saves. The save that she made on a header by Michelle [Young] was one of the best saves I have seen in a while. She kept them in the game. We just couldn’t get that second goal in to win the game.”
Pineda also scored the game winner in UNT’s 2-1 win over Florida Atlantic and was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week.
UNT to hit road
UNT will travel to Troy and South Alabama this week after splitting a pair of matches with Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.
The 20th-ranked Hilltoppers swept UNT at home before the Mean Green bounced back to sweep Middle Tennessee.
UNT had dropped eight straight matches to the Blue Raiders and had been knocked out the Sun Belt tournament by MTSU in each of the last two seasons.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .