Brett Vito: Win over Cajuns boosted chances

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University of North Texas junior wide receiver Brelan Chancellor (3) brings in a catch against University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Tuesday, October 16, 2012, at Apogee Stadium in Denton, TX.
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Knowing Dan McCarney, he probably spent the weekend hunkered down in a film room somewhere.

A Saturday off? There is no such thing in college football, even when that’s what it says on the schedule.

You couldn’t have blamed North Texas’ head coach if he did get in a little rest and relaxation, though, especially after the Mean Green posted arguably the biggest win of his short tenure Tuesday.

Louisiana-Lafayette might not be a household name like Indiana, a team UNT beat last season in its headline win of the year.

ULL is better, though. A lot better.

That’s what made a 30-23 victory so big for UNT. Well, that and the fact that the win essentially saved the Mean Green’s season and unfolded in front of a national television audience on ESPN2.

Beating the Ragin’ Cajuns gave UNT even more motivation to prepare for Saturday’s game at Middle Tennessee, not to mention watch what went on across the Sun Belt over the weekend.

UNT is sitting at 3-4 overall and suddenly is very much alive in the chase for the Sun Belt title and the race to six wins — the magic mark to become bowl-eligible, a milestone UNT hasn’t reached since 2004.

So what did the weekend’s games tell us about UNT’s chances? The Mean Green has a shot, but it’s not going to be easy.

Of course, McCarney and his players already knew that. The Sun Belt isn’t what it used to be.

“It has to be as good as it has ever been in the Sun Belt,” McCarney said before facing the Ragin’ Cajuns. “I had coached against Sun Belt teams but had never been a head coach in the league. From being inside the league now, this has to be the best it has ever been.

“We hope to be a real factor in the race as the season goes on.”

UNT has a chance now, thanks to its win over the Ragin’ Cajuns.

At 2-1 in league play, the Mean Green is only a game behind Louisiana-Monroe, the last unbeaten team in the Sun Belt at 3-0. UNT will face the Warhawks in Monroe on Nov. 17.

Win out, and the Mean Green wins at least a share of the title.

That will be a tough goal to attain, but winning three more games to hit the .500 mark and be bowl-eligible is starting to look more realistic.

The Mean Green went 3-2 down the stretch last season. Just don’t expect a repeat to be as simple as it sounds.

UNT beat ULM, Troy and MTSU to close last year with losses to Arkansas State and Western Kentucky coming between those wins. MTSU finished 2-10, Troy 3-9 and ULM 4-8.

There aren’t many struggling teams left for UNT to pick on this year.

After facing the Blue Raiders on the road Saturday, the Mean Green comes home to face ASU and South Alabama before closing at ULM and WKU.

That is where the change in the stature of the Sun Belt comes into play. There is just one team in that batch that doesn’t have a winning record at this point, and that’s USA, which is still in the process of moving up from the FCS level.

ULM has a clear shot at the Sun Belt title after coming back to knock off WKU in overtime Saturday to improve to 5-2. The Warhawks have already beaten Arkansas, taken Auburn to overtime and given Baylor a scare.

WKU won’t be a pushover, either. The Hilltoppers have a win over Kentucky on their resume.

ASU doesn’t have a big win yet this season, but has won two straight heading into a game against ULL on Tuesday and is still loaded with the talent that made the Red Wolves one of the preseason favorites in the Sun Belt.

The difference now is those games don’t look like as big of a reach as they did before the Mean Green beat the Ragin’ Cajuns in a momentum-building win.

“We wanted to showcase this university and showcase this football team,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said after Tuesday’s game. “We dug down deep and did it.”

UNT opened up a world of possibilities in the process.

“We beat a good football team tonight,” McCarney said after the game. “I thought we grew up.”

A tough slate of games down the stretch will show whether UNT has grown into a bowl-level team.

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


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