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C-USA title game marks UNT's quick turnaround

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Turner Smiley was around for some dark days in North Texas football over the last four years, including a one-win season just two years ago.

Those down times make what UNT has accomplished heading into the Conference USA title game Saturday all the sweeter for the senior wide receiver.

UNT (9-3) won the league's West Division title and became bowl-eligible along the way. A win over Florida Atlantic would give the Mean Green their first conference title in more than a decade.

"It's amazing to have a chance to play for the title after being so bad," Smiley said. "This season has been rewarding. No one wants to go 1-11. To be here through the turnaround and go out a champion would be great."

Smiley is one of a select group of veteran players who were around for that one-win season and UNT's subsequent rise under Seth Littrell, who is in his second season as Mean Green coach.

UNT finished 5-8 and played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last year.

Now UNT is in the position to win its first conference title since Darrell Dickey led the Mean Green to four straight Sun Belt titles from 2001-04.

"It would mean a lot for the program," Littrell said of winning a conference title. "Anytime you go to a new place, you are trying to set a standard and a culture. It takes a lot of work to get your players to believe in you and your staff. The staff has done a great job and the players have been even better."

UNT has won five straight games, its longest winning streak since 2013, the last time the Mean Green won a bowl game.

Just one roadblock stands between UNT and another championship, and it appears to be a pretty significant one in FAU.

There aren't many hotter teams in C-USA -- or the country -- than the Owls. FAU (9-3) has won eight straight with an average margin of victory of 22.1 points.

The Owls have posted several impressive wins during that run, including a 69-31 thrashing of UNT that might be the most impressive of all. FAU scored on its first 11 possessions before packing it in late in the fourth while up by 52.

"It was a huge wake-up call that night," Littrell said. "They did a great job and dominated us in all three phases. It goes to show you that you had better be prepared and ready for a dogfight every single week."

That lesson is one of several UNT has learned in a season that has seen the Mean Green continue their rapid development.

UNT entered the season touting the fact that it averaged 24.8 points per game in Littrell's first season, an improvement of 9.6 points over the previous year.

The Mean Green have one-upped themselves and enter the title game averaging 37.5 points.

UNT's defense that has struggled at times has shown signs of life late in the year. The Mean Green held their last two C-USA opponents to 10 points combined. UNT allowed just a field goal in a win over UTEP and a touchdown in a win over Rice.

The Miners and Rice Owls scored defensive touchdowns to pad their totals.

The challenge now for UNT is keeping that run going against FAU, which is in the midst of a breakout season of its own under Lane Kiffin.

UNT is confident even though it struggled against the Owls the last time out.

"We have been playing well since that game," UNT quarterback Mason Fine said. "We learned a lot that has helped us through the season."

Kiffin certainly expects UNT to present a bigger challenge.

"We are going to get their best shot," Kiffin said. "They are just like us. They didn't have a lot of success a couple of years ago. They improved last year and now they are playing great."

Being a part of that process has been rewarding for players like Smiley who suffered through the tough times and now have a chance to play for a conference title.

"Anytime you are competing for championships, it's an awesome deal," Littrell said. "These things don't happen very often. When they do, you have to take advantage."

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

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas senior wide receiver Turner Smiley (1) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during a win over Army at Apogee Stadium on Nov. 18. (Jeff Woo/DRC)