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Football: UNT aims to end slide vs. FBS competition in C-USA opener

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas took a few key steps in what the Mean Green hoped would be their long-term rise as a program in the early stages of the season last fall.

UNT knocked off Marshall in October, then posted an even bigger win over Army that boosted the Mean Green to 4-3 and bolstered hopes that long-term sustained success was imminent.

UNT (1-2) is still confident it is headed in the right direction nearly a year later, even as the wins to show that is the case have become less and less frequent heading into its Conference USA opener against UAB (2-1) on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.

The Mean Green have played eight games against teams that compete on the Football Bowl Subdivision level since their regular-season win over Army last fall and won just one — a 29-23 squeaker over Southern Mississippi in November that sent the Mean Green to the postseason.

UNT is determined to show that unsightly slide is merely a blip on the radar for a program headed in the right direction.

"We are becoming more consistent and are a much better football team than we were a year ago," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "We are going to continue to build this program for a consistent future. Week in, week out, year in, year out, we are going to compete for championships."

There is little doubt UNT has taken big strides toward that goal under Littrell. He took over a team that finished 1-11 the season before his arrival and guided it to a 5-8 finish last fall.

No one expected the Mean Green to play in a bowl game, but UNT was right there at the end of the season. Falling to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl was far from the ideal ending, but it certainly represented a step in the right direction.

UNT hopes to build on that bowl appearance this fall and still has plenty of time. The question is whether it can right the ship in what appears as if it will be a highly competitive race in C-USA.

UNT's players are confident they will be in the mix in the league's West Division and resume playing at the level they did early last season.

"We never lost our mojo from the beginning of last year," UNT linebacker Brandon Garner said. "We just have to execute."

Improvement evident

Littrell and his players point to a host of signs that they are poised to get back on track when they begin conference play. The biggest is that UNT just feels like it is a better team.

Quarterback Mason Fine returned for his second season as the Mean Green's starting quarterback and shows signs of improvement. Running back Jeffery Wilson is as steady as ever and put up an impressive 95 rushing yards last week in a loss to Iowa. The Mean Green also added a few talented newcomers.

Wide receiver Jalen Guyton transferred from Trinity Valley Community College and showed why he was once considered one of Texas' top high school receivers while catching three touchdown passes in the first three weeks.

UNT leads C-USA with an average of 35.0 points per game, although that total is inflated by a 59-14 win over Lamar, a team that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision.

"We feel like we can win any game on our schedule and have momentum heading into conference play," Fine said. "We want to make a statement."

Littrell pointed to consistency as the biggest reason UNT hasn't hit its stride like it did early last season.

UNT changed quarterbacks late in 2016 when Fine went down with a shoulder injury. Senior Alec Morris started UNT's last three games. Wilson was injured late last season and missed two games.

Those injuries contributed to a series of disappointing losses, including a 45-7 blowout at the hands of Western Kentucky.

"There isn't a theme," Garner said of the reasons behind UNT's slide. "We just don't execute sometimes and beat ourselves. I don't think anyone has straight beaten us and been better than we are. We are beating ourselves by not executing."

UNT gave up five scoring plays of 35 yards or more in a loss to SMU. The Mean Green were up 14-10 on Iowa in the third quarter before Nate Stanley's 23-yard pass to tight end Noah Fant on a fourth-and-5 play sparked a run of 21 straight Hawkeye points to close the game.

Plying teams like Iowa hasn't helped matters. UNT has lost to Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, the teams that played in last season's C-USA title game, during its slide in addition to SMU.

"It might be the difficulty of the schedule," Fine said of recent struggles. "The teams we faced at the end of last year were all good and were at the top of Conference USA. We are not going to worry about it. We are going to focus on our game plan each week and go in with confidence."

That is exactly how UNT will enter league play.

"I have a great feeling about this season and conference play," safety Khairi Muhammad said.

A league on the rise

UNT might need that confidence as it prepares to take on what looks like a vastly improved group of teams in C-USA, and especially in its West Division.

Texas-San Antonio is off to a 2-0 start, including a win over Baylor. Louisiana Tech is 2-1 and opened C-USA play with a win at Western Kentucky, the defending conference champion, last week.

"You see those games," Fine said. "They stick out, especially when a Group of Five team plays a Power Five team. You are cheering for the teams you are going to play and want them to do well. That way, if you beat them, it means more.

"I want Conference USA teams to do well outside of conference play."

The question now is how UNT will fare against those C-USA teams that have posted eye-catching wins.

The Mean Green were on a roll not too long ago during an early run in 2016 that helped pave the way to a five-win season and a bowl appearance.

UNT is looking to begin a similar run Saturday and end a slide against FBS programs.

"The confidence is still there," Garner said. "We are ready to go out and win."

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

Featured photo: North Texas players celebrate with fans after a 59-14 win over Lamar in their season-opener at Apogee Stadium on Sept. 2. (Jeff Woo/DRC)

North Texas' slide vs. FBS opponents

North Texas has lost seven of its last eight games against teams that compete on the Football Bowl Subdivision level. The following is a look: 

Date Opponent Score
Sept. 16 at Iowa L, 31-14
Sept. 9 at SMU L, 54-32
Dec. 27 vs. Army* L, 38-31 (OT)
Nov. 26 at UTEP L, 52-24
Nov. 19 Southern Mississippi W, 29-23
Nov. 12 at Western Kentucky L, 45-7
Nov. 5 Louisiana Tech L, 45-24
Oct. 29 at Texas-San Antonio L, 31-17
*Heart of Dallas Bowl