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Rarefied air — UNT having arguably the best season for a Texas G5 program

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas has reached some rarefied air heading into its regular-season finale Saturday at Rice.

The Mean Green have won the Conference USA West Division title and are bowl-eligible at 8-3, milestones that also put UNT in the running for an unofficial title — the Texas Group of Five team enjoying the best season.

SMU is 6-5 and bowl-eligible for the first time since 2012. Texas-San Antonio also has six wins, but it's UNT that might have the best resume of all.

The Mean Green not only have the most wins among the seven G5 teams in Texas, they are the only member of the group that has clinched a championship, even if it is only a division crown.

G5 teams compete in C-USA, the American Athletic, Mountain West, Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences.

"Having one of the best seasons for a G5 program in Texas will absolutely help this program in all aspects," UNT offensive lineman T.J. Henson said. "People will look at this season and say, 'Wow, those guys are doing something special over there. I need to get on that train.'"

UNT will look to keep that train rolling against Rice in the finale of a round robin among the four Texas schools in C-USA. A win would give UNT a clean sweep.

The Mean Green pulled out a dramatic, last-second 29-26 win over UTSA, while its 45-10 drubbing of UTEP two weeks ago gave UNT the West crown.

The Mean Green's only loss to a Texas G5 program came in a nonconference game at SMU in the second week of the season.

"It's made a big impact," UNT coach Seth Littrell said of the season the Mean Green have put together. "Anytime you win, everything gets better across the board. We still have a long way to go and are not where we need to be, but I like the direction we are headed."

That is especially true considering where UNT was not too long ago.

The Mean Green finished 1-11 in 2015, the season before Littrell arrived. UNT finished 5-8 last season and began to inch its way up the pecking order among state programs.

The Mean Green lost to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl but took a significant step forward. Less than a year later, they are set to face Florida Atlantic in the C-USA title game Dec. 2 in Boca Raton. Win that game, and the Mean Green will have their first conference title since 2004.

UNT has three games left, including the bowl game it is sure to play in at the end of the season, and has a shot to set a school record for wins with 11.

UNT won 10 games in 1947 under Odus Mitchell and reached that milestone in 1977 under Hayden Fry.

"It's good for the program and good for recruiting," quarterback Mason Fine said of the way UNT has played. "We have exceeded expectations. It's a good feeling."

The Mean Green are hoping their rise among Texas programs over the last two years is just the beginning. UNT has just six senior starters.

Fine has thrown for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns while setting the program's single-season passing record as a sophomore. Jalen Guyton has a team-high 758 receiving yards and nine touchdowns and is also a sophomore.

The impact of what UNT has accomplished so far can has been felt not only in the win column but also in the stands.

The Mean Green have played in front of crowds that exceeded 26,000 in each of their last two home games. UNT's average of 22,362 fans at Apogee Stadium this season is a program record.

Littrell says that level of support is a big reason UNT finished 6-0 at home and is hoping the Mean Green's following will continue to grow.

"The fans were a huge reason we had the success we did at Apogee," Littrell said.

UNT is hoping that success carries over to recruiting. The Mean Green currently rank seventh among C-USA teams in 247Sports' rankings of the top recruiting classes in the league.

"It would definitely help the program to keep winning, especially with recruiting," wide receiver Turner Smiley said. "No one wants to play for a 1-11 team."

Smiley did just that just two years ago when UNT finished with fewer wins than any Texas G5 team.

UNT is on the opposite end of the spectrum this season as it puts together a memorable campaign, one Littrell hopes is another step in the program's rise.

"It gets you over the hump to have a season like this," Littrell said. "The hardest thing is to do something for the first time and get yourself to the point where you have the culture of competing for championships and how we want to play at Apogee. Now we understand the culture and have something to look at and visualize moving forward with how we compete and what we are trying to compete for."

UNT entered the year aiming to compete for the C-USA title, a bowl berth and a bowl win. It's in position to compete for even more as it heads off to Rice — a chance to post the best season among G5 programs in the state.

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

Texas G5 programs

The following is a look at where the seven Group of Five programs in Texas stand heading into the weekend:

Team Overall Conference Win improvement*
North Texas 8-3 6-1 (C-USA) Plus 3
Houston 6-4 4-3 (American)
Texas-San Antonio 6-4 3-4 (C-USA)
SMU 6-5 3-4 (American) Plus 1
Texas State 2-9 1-6 (Sun Belt)
Rice 1-10 1-6 (C-USA)
UTEP 0-11 0-7 (C-USA)
  • The number of wins each team has improved by over the 2016 season heading into the weekend