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C-USA suddenly home to teams pulling upsets as UNT looks to join the fray at Iowa

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Seth Littrell knows exactly what most people expect to transpire when North Texas heads to Iowa on Saturday for a game against Hawkeyes.

UNT lost to Iowa 62-16 just two years ago and is a 21 1/2-point underdog. Oh, and the Mean Green are picking up a check for $900,000 for making the trip.

UNT is supposed to get hammered and then get out of town.

Littrell and his players aren't thinking a whole lot about what's expected, though. They're thinking about what would happen if they pull off a stunning upset.

"It would be huge for the fans, the people who support the program and our confidence," Littrell said. "There are a lot of great things that can happen if you win a game like this. It happens every season, when there are upsets in the first three or four weeks. That is why you prepare the best way you can and continue to grow. You want to be in position to win big-time games like this."

UNT has been in that position plenty over the years but has rarely capitalized.

The Mean Green are 13-103 against teams from the Power Five conferences — the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference.

UNT last beat a Power Five team in 2011 when it edged Indiana of the Big Ten 24-21 at Apogee Stadium. The Mean Green have lost eight straight to Power Five teams since, including a 32-0 loss to Florida last year.

The Mean Green's chances of breaking through seem slim against the Hawkeyes, who are 2-0 and received votes in this week's Associated Press poll. UNT is 1-1 and coming off a disheartening 54-32 loss to rival SMU.

Those long odds don't matter to UNT's players. They grew up dreaming of playing for nationally prominent programs in power leagues and relish their opportunity to prove they belong on the big stage.

"We are ready to go up there and show what we've got," UNT safety Kishawn McClain said. "We will go in and compete with anybody. We like the big stage. It's a chance to show what you can do."

After what transpired last week, it's also a chance for UNT to keep up with some of its rivals in Conference USA.

A rare weekend for C-USA and what it says

C-USA has seen plenty of its members pull off memorable upsets over the years.

What made last week special was that league teams posted a pair of memorable wins on the same day.

Middle Tennessee went on the road to Syracuse and snuck out a 30-23 win, while Texas-San Antonio went to Baylor and came away with a 17-10 victory over the Bears.

"To be able to deliver a signature win for our university, for our city, for our fans — it's a big deal," UTSA coach Frank Wilson said. "It's been a long time coming. They've been with us from the birth of this program seven years ago, and we shared it with them."

A win over Syracuse was just as important for the Blue Raiders.

"These are the games you have to win to put the program on the map," MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill said.

Those wins caught the attention of not only coaches across the country but of UNT's coaches and players.

UTSA has beaten UNT three of the four times the teams have played. The Roadrunners are expected to challenge for the C-USA West Division championship. UNT has aspirations of competing for the title.

UTSA's win showed how tough C-USA could be this year. The publicity both received after their wins also showed the value of beating a Power Five team.

UTSA's win was a big story in San Antonio, just like MTSU's was in Tennessee.

"We would love to have a [high-profile] win like UTSA and Middle Tennessee," McClain said. "It would show that we are not messing around and that whoever we play is going to get our best."

Kirk Ferentz is expecting nothing less from UNT. The longtime Iowa coach has faced plenty of underdogs with something to prove over the years and has lost a few of those games.

North Dakota State stunned Iowa 23-21 in 2016. The Hawkeyes fell to Northern Illinois 30-27 in their opener in 2013.

"That's what you have to expect — for them to come in here with their hair on fire," Ferentz said.

That level of motivation is just one of several factors Ferentz cites when it comes to the number of upsets that take place in college football when teams like UNT get their shot to play a Power Five team.

Ferentz also named the limit of 85 scholarships per school imposed by the NCAA in the 1990s as a factor in the number of upsets in recent years. The limit has caused talent to be distributed more evenly among teams.

"If a team has a good quarterback and a good system, that can be a great equalizer for underdogs," Ferentz said.

He says UNT fits that profile.

"We are really impressed with them on tape," Ferentz said. "This game will be a challenge for us. We haven't played a team like North Texas that runs a high-tempo offense."

Does UNT have what it takes?

UNT is in its second season playing in a spread system under Littrell. The offense has become the rage in college football and has helped plenty of underdogs overcome the odds on their way to an upset.

Attitude also can be a factor. Littrell has maintained that he believes UNT is capable of winning every game it plays.

That may sound like coach-speak, but the Mean Green's players believe it.

"We absolutely look forward to these games," wide receiver Turner Smiley said. "We don't see ourselves as the underdog. We see this game as an opportunity to go in and beat a big-name team."

UNT's players say they must bring a high level of confidence to their game at Iowa if they are going to have a chance to upset the Hawkeyes.

"We embrace the opportunity and are going up there expecting to win and to make plays, especially offensively," quarterback Mason Fine said. "We have a great game plan. We have to execute, be confident in ourselves and go up there with something to prove. We can't be timid."

UNT believes following that approach will give it a chance to do what few teams in program history have done and what two of its peers in C-USA recently accomplished — beating a Power Five opponent.

"I used to watch Iowa on TV, and now I get to play against them," cornerback Kemon Hall said. "This is a dream to play against a school like Iowa."

The dream is one UNT is hoping will end with a win that would have a profound impact on the program.

"I am excited to see our guys play and coach in this game," Littrell said. "This is a great opportunity against a very good football team. What do we have to lose?"

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

Memorable games vs. Power Five teams

North Texas will face Iowa on Saturday and is a huge underdog. Here is a look at a few memorable games the Mean Green have played against Power Five conference teams in the last 50 years:

Season Opponent Result
2013 Georgia UNT was locked in a 21-all tie with the No. 9 Bulldogs in the second half before falling 45-21.
2011 Indiana UNT stunned the Hoosiers 24-21 for Dan McCarney’s first win as Mean Green coach.
2010 Kansas State UNT nearly upended Kansas State in the final game at Fouts Field under interim coach Mike Canales before falling 49-41.
2003 Baylor UNT hammered the Bears 52-14 for one of the greatest wins in program history under UNT Athletic Hall of Fame coach Darrell Dickey.
1988 Texas Keith Cash caught a 10-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left to give Texas a 27-24 win. Whether Cash was in bounds remains a debate.
1975 Tennessee UNT toppled Tennessee 21-14 under Hayden Fry in what many Mean Green fans count as the greatest win in program history.

Featured photo: Scrappy, the North Texas mascot, crowd surfs as Mean Green fans swarm the field after a 24-21 win over Indiana in 2011. The win is one of UNT's more memorable in nonconference play over the last decade.