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Brett Vito: Despite loss, UNT continues to show progress

Boise State appeared to hit a springboard as a program following a win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. For TCU, it was a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2011 that gave the Frogs a jolt and a higher profile nationally.

Those victories changed everything for a couple of programs North Texas is intimately familiar with due to proximity in the case of TCU and the Mean Green’s history with former Big West Conference rival Boise State.

UNT appeared to be on the verge of that type of milestone win at times on Saturday, when the Mean Green made a couple of big plays and was locked in a tie game with ninth-ranked Georgia.

The sense of disappointment was unmistakable after UNT’s shot at a win that would have changed everything evaporated in a matter of moments in the second half of a 45-21 loss to the Bulldogs.

“It’s frustrating,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We know we are a good football team and can compete with them. We were right there and let it slip away.”

Missing out on that opportunity stung, but it shouldn’t detract from the obvious — the Mean Green is making some serious headway as a program and had a chance to show that during a few fleeting moments in the national spotlight.

UNT’s game against Georgia was one a lot of people were keeping an eye on early Saturday to see if the little guy could pull off the big upset.

The Mean Green couldn’t quite get it done and felt like it let a grand opportunity get away, which mattered a lot more to UNT’s coaches and players than any publicity bump that came along with a solid performance.

Players like Thompson know chances like the one UNT had against Georgia don’t come along every day, year or even decade in the case of the Mean Green. UNT has only one win over a ranked team in program history, and that came all the way back in 1974, when the Mean Green beat No. 20 San Diego State.

UNT head coach Dan McCarney has never been one to claim moral victories and wasn’t about to start after the Mean Green hung around into the third quarter against Georgia.

“I’m proud of the effort of our guys, but it’s hard to swallow because for a lot of that game I thought we played really physical, even football even though they are talented, tough, tenacious and very deserving of a top-10 ranking,” McCarney said. “We did a lot of positive things, but in the end it was too much Georgia and not enough us.”

UNT was left to wonder what might have been had it made just a few more plays and won. The Mean Green would have been the talk of college football today nationally, just like Appalachian State was when it upset Michigan in 2007 and just like Eastern Washington was when it upset Oregon State a few weeks ago.

Even though UNT didn’t quite pull off the upset, there is a lot to like about the Mean Green’s performance.

Thompson continues to play well and threw for 202 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs.

UNT’s defense gives up way too many big plays but kept the Mean Green in it for a while. Georgia marched up and down the field all day and amassed a whopping 641 yards, but didn’t put UNT away until stringing together 24 straight points to close the game after the Mean Green had tied it up at 21-21.

Brelan Chancellor’s 99-yard kickoff return and a blocked punt from Marcus Trice that Zac Whitfield recovered for a touchdown put UNT in position to pull off the upset.

“I wasn’t kidding when I tried to explain to everyone that this is a good football team,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “These guys are really good players and they are really well coached. They gave us one heck of a ballgame.”

The question now is if UNT can build on that performance as it heads into Conference USA play. UNT has a bye week before facing Tulane on Oct. 5.

C-USA doesn’t look all that intimidating now, not with Louisiana Tech having seemingly slipped since last season, not with Rice and Tulsa appearing to be a bit less talented than anticipated at the beginning of the year.

UNT will start league play confident that it can compete and make a run at becoming bowl-eligible with six wins.

The question is just how much better UNT is this year.

UNT has won twice already — including a solid win over Ball State — on its resume, but how much can one really read into a close loss to a national power?

UNT’s performance against Georgia was a sign of progress, but the Mean Green was essentially in the same spot last year after a 14-point loss at Kansas State that built faith in the program.

In 2011, it was a win over Indiana that sent hopes soaring.

The Mean Green failed to get to a bowl game in either season.

Will the progress UNT showed against Georgia translate into sustained success and the Mean Green’s first bowl berth since 2004?

That’s the hope, and those hopes clearly rose after UNT’s loss to Georgia.

“We did some really good things and had some things we didn’t do well,” UNT linebacker Derek Akunne said. “We will go back, look at and be even better for Conference USA.”

UNT didn’t get a landmark win, but its performance against Georgia gave UNT some confidence and some much-needed publicity heading into conference play.

In the end, that wasn’t a bad consolation prize.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.