Dan McCarney knows exactly what a bowl game can mean for a college football team, from added publicity to the confidence it can foster in a team to what he and several Sun Belt Conference coaches say is an overlooked benefit — a lot of extra practice.
UNT was eliminated from bowl contention last week in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe and won’t make a postseason appearance for the eighth straight year, no matter what happens in its season finale Saturday at Western Kentucky.
Teams that play in bowl games can schedule 15 additional practices between the end of the regular season and their bowl game.
UNT hasn’t had that opportunity since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl and will see several of its 2013 nonconference opponents get a bit of a jump heading into next season.
The Mean Green will open at home against Idaho, which finished 1-10 this season before facing Ball State at home and Georgia and Ohio on the road.
Georgia is 10-1, while Ball State and Ohio are both 8-3.
All three are expected to play in bowl games.
“I have been to 20 bowl games, so I have good experience in knowing what that means to a program and a university and your football team,” McCarney said of playing in a bowl game. “We miss out on it. It’s a major downer. It’s a negative and not what we put at the top of our goal list in August — let’s sit home for the holidays.
“The value of practices you get in bowl preparation are immeasurable when you talk about how important they are.”
Mario Cristobal led Florida International to bowl games in each of the last two years and saw how his team benefitted from those extra practices and how much the Golden Panthers will miss them after a tough 2012 season.
FIU was picked to win the Sun Belt in the preseason but is just 3-8 heading into its season finale against Louisiana-Monroe this week.
“To me they are invaluable,” Cristobal said. “The NCAA is very regimented. You want as much access to your players as you can. You can develop your young players during those bowl practices.”
Arkansas State will have that advantage after first-year head coach Gus Malzahn put the Red Wolves in position to play in the postseason for the second straight year. ASU is 8-3 heading into its regular-season finale against Middle Tennessee.
“The bowl practices and an extra game are like having an extra spring practice,” Malzahn said. “It’s a huge advantage.”
UNT believes it has a solid plan in place to overcome the head start several of its nonconference opponents appear as if they will have heading into next season. McCarney expressed confidence in strength coach Frank Wintrich, who oversees the Mean Green’s off-season program.
“It absolutely puts us a little bit behind,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “They have a chance to have an extra 15 practices, which is huge for their younger guys to gain experience and fine-tune their craft. There is nothing we can do about it now. We still have a big off-season coming up and have to develop.”
UNT believes if it can take advantage of its offseason opportunities, it will be back in a bowl game soon and will have the edge some extra off-season work provides.
“We want to do that and feel like we will be able to really soon,” McCarney said of playing in the postseason. “We are not consistent enough yet.”
Home opener important
UNT has known for weeks it would play host to Idaho to open the 2013 season.
McCarney talked a little about how important that game will be to the growth of the program Tuesday.
UNT has not opened at home since falling to TCU at Fouts Field in 2001.
“We are making it hard for people to come here and beat us. That is where it starts when you look to turn a program around,” McCarney said. “It’s very important to have a home opener.”
McCarney has emphasized winning at home since he took over at UNT before last season. The Mean Green went 1-16 at home in the three seasons prior to McCarney taking over the program.
UNT immediately went 4-2 in its first season at home and posted a 3-2 home record this year.
The Mean Green had not posted back-to-back winning seasons at home since the 2003-04 campaigns.
The turnaround is something McCarney and his coaches are selling to recruits and what he hopes will be the next generation of Mean Green fans.
“We talk about our fan base, the students, the best attendance we have had in many, many years and back-to-back winning seasons [at home] for the first time in many years,” McCarney said. “We talk about embracing our fan base and getting with the next group of 3,700 to 4,000 freshmen to come to this great university and getting them to come to our games so that we will get to a point where there isn’t an empty seat in the stadium. I know that will happen.”
McCarney thanks fans
UNT fell short of its goal to break the school’s record for per-game attendance average this season, but still averaged 18,927 fans for five home games.
That total fell just short of the school record of 19,517 set in 1994 but was an improvement over the 18,864 fans UNT averaged for six home games last season.
UNT drew a record 113,186 total fans last year.
McCarney believes the last two seasons are an indication of progress for the program and expressed his gratitude Tuesday.
“I appreciate our fans’ support all year long,” McCarney said. “They have helped us build a foundation for our program for now and the future with their attendance and support. When you go from 1-16 at home before I got here to 7-4, it starts with the support you are getting. We are getting great support.”
UNT to sign 20
UNT plans to sign 20 players on national signing day in February to fill out a signing class that already includes several transfers who are already on campus, McCarney said.
Quarterback Brock Berglund, running back Reggie Pegram and wide receiver Darius Terrell are all sitting out this season after transferring from other schools. Berglund began his career at Kansas, while Pegram played for Purdue and Terrell for Texas.
“There is no question that those guys will enhance our competition at those positions,” McCarney said.
Petersen sees positives
New UNT head coach Mike Petersen saw several positives in the Mean Green’s performance in an epic triple-overtime loss to Alabama on Monday night.
The Mean Green rallied from 15 points down twice and pushed the Crimson Tide to a third overtime before Alabama scored the first five points of the period and pulled away for an 88-83 win.
“That was a great sign for us,” Petersen said of UNT’s performance. “I told them that I was happy with our effort and the way we hung together. It would have been easy to play out the string after being down 15. To go three overtimes, there are going to be big plays. BreAnna Dawkins made big plays, Laura McCoy made a big shot or two and Loryn Goodwin played well.”
Dawkins hit two free throws with 32 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.
Later, McCoy hit a driving layup late in the first overtime before Alabama answered and hit a key 3-pointer in the second overtime.
Dawkins put UNT up in the second overtime and had a chance to win the game with the score tied, but was called for a charge with two seconds left.
“The end of the first overtime and the end of the second we needed a stop, and they made really good individual plays,” Petersen said.
Alabama has played well early in the season and improved to 4-0 with its win over UNT, which has seen several newcomers play well early in the season.
Dawkins, a sophomore who is in her first season playing for UNT after transferring from Wichita State, scored a career-high 18 points.
McCoy finished with 16 points, while freshman Loryn Goodwin finished with a double-double that included 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Each of those players is handling a new role this season, including McCoy, who is becoming a more vital part of UNT’s offense than she was previously in her career.
Petersen has been pleased with the way those players have handled those roles while facing a tough schedule.
“It’s the nature of our schedule,” Petersen said. “We are playing a lot of really difficult games that are going to make us better.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .