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Brett Vito: Mean Green could be key player in C-USA race

When we last left Conference USA — or at least talked about how the league might shape up a few weeks ago — there were a few safe assumptions one could make.

Rice, which won five of its last six and then beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl a year ago, would be pretty darn good after returning nearly all of its key players. Tulsa would be at the top of the league just like it always is. Louisiana Tech lost pretty much everyone, including head coach Sonny Dykes to Cal, but has a recent history of success and didn’t seem to be headed for much of a drop-off.

And UNT?

The Mean Green was largely overlooked and projected to finish in the middle of the pack.

Five weeks and a few stunners later, it’s tough to come to any conclusions about C-USA, especially when it comes to the West Division.

That’s good news for the Mean Green, which will dive into league play after a much-needed bye on Saturday at Tulane.

UNT handled its buy-a-win game at home against Idaho and showed a lot of guts to come back from an 18-point deficit to beat a pretty good Ball State team. A 2-1 start was UNT’s best since resuming playing on the Football Bowl Subdivision level in 1995.

What might have been even more encouraging was UNT’s performance last week at Georgia, when the Mean Green was locked in a 21-all tie with the ninth-ranked team in the country early in the third quarter.

That performance suddenly looks a lot more impressive after the Bulldogs knocked off LSU on Saturday.

“That shows that we can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country when we are on our Ps and Qs,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said.

The hope is UNT’s all-around performance in nonconference play is an indication the Mean Green can compete in C-USA.

What has happened so far in the league certainly hasn’t offered any evidence to the contrary.

Tulsa is just 1-3 and barely squeaked by Colorado State for its only win of the year. Rice was essentially gifted a win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday when Bryce Callahan picked off Greg Hankerson with FAU leading 14-12 late in the second half.

Darik Dillard’s 20-yard touchdown run three plays later gave Rice an 18-14 win in its C-USA opener, a game the FAU seemed destined to win most of the night.

Tulane looked pretty darn good while hammering Louisiana-Monroe and also has a win over Louisiana Tech, but is one of the few teams left on UNT’s schedule that are playing well at the moment.

One can bet UNT’s players and coaches were watching those games unfold and wondering what opportunities might await if they can replicate their performance in a 45-21 loss to Georgia against a more evenly matched opponent.

The question is one UNT has been pondering since its loss to the Bulldogs.

“We did some really good things and had some things we didn’t do well that we will go back and look at and be even better for Conference USA,” UNT linebacker Derek Akunne said following the Mean Green’s loss to Georgia.

UNT spent a lot of time going back to basics over the last few days, addressing some of its weaknesses including an offense that has been inconsistent at times. The Mean Green scored just one offensive touchdown against Georgia.

Yeah, it was Georgia, a team pretty much any team outside of the national powers struggles to score against, but it’s still a concern.

UNT has also experienced issues in the secondary and given up a host of big plays, including too many shots down the field.

Georgia wide receiver Reggie Davis beat UNT deep for a 98-yard touchdown strike from Aaron Murray, while Ohio’s Chase Cochran got behind the Mean Green and hauled in a 75-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Tettleton.

One can bet UNT worked on both issues this week.

“The off week gave us a chance to get our fundamentals right,” UNT cornerback James Jones said.

While everything hasn’t gone right for UNT, there is plenty that has gone the Mean Green’s way so far.

UNT has a ton of confidence right now and seems to be headed in the right direction.

That’s something not every school in C-USA can say, including some of the teams UNT was expected to be chasing in the race for the league title just a few weeks ago.

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