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Brett Vito: Playing in New Orleans Bowl a huge win for UNT, even if matchup with Troy isn't

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

What started out as tough weekend for North Texas got a whole lot better on Sunday.

UNT is headed to the Big Easy, Bourbon Street and the New Orleans Bowl.

If there is anything that can soften the blow of being blown out in the Conference USA title game, it'd be a trip to one of the best bowl destinations anyone could possibly wish for.

The Mean Green will face Troy on Dec. 16 at the Superdome in a matchup of old Sun Belt rivals in a town that holds a whole lot of good memories for UNT supporters.

The New Orleans Bowl wasn't UNT's first choice.

That would have been playing a Power Five conference team and having the opportunity to pull off a program-defining upset.

A UNT source indicated on Saturday before the Mean Green fell to Florida Atlantic 41-17 in the C-USA title game that New Orleans was the school's second pick.

When all was said and done, New Orleans was where UNT ended up.

There is one really good reason UNT had the bowl high on its list that tends to get overlooked — guys like Turner Smiley and Kishawn McClain and Trevor Moore.

The Mean Green's seniors helped pave the way for a dramatic turnaround the last two years.

They deserve a chance to end their careers in the best possible spot.

New Orleans certainly qualifies.

It sure beats playing in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque or the Independence Bowl in Shreveport.

"I have heard so many stories about how great the New Orleans Bowl experience was from our fans, staff and former players who were there," UNT coach Seth Littrell said in a statement. "New Orleans is a great destination that is easy for our fans to travel to. I'm confident this experience will be memorable for everyone around the Mean Green football program."

The matchup might not be all that appealing considering UNT spent time in the Sun Belt with Troy as a league rival.

Southern Mississippi wound up in the Independence Bowl, where the Golden Eagles will face Florida State minus Jimbo Fisher, who just left to take over at Texas A&M.

There is something to be said for an intriguing matchup and an opportunity for a milestone win. While Troy isn't a headliner program like Florida State, it's a solid team that provides some intrigue.

The Trojans beat LSU earlier this year and have one of the nation's best defenses, allowing just 17.5 points per game.

A win would give UNT 10 victories on the season, a milestone the Mean Green haven't reached since 1977.

Reaching that mark would give UNT just as much of a boost as beating a 6-6 Florida State team without its head coach and starting quarterback Deondre Francois, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Seminoles' season-opener.

There is also something to be said for giving Littrell the best possible chance to reach his stated goal of winning a bowl game.

He talked about it in his first season and continues to talk about it in his second.

Talking about it again next year after coming up short twice would be less than ideal. Playing Troy might give UNT its best shot at a bowl win.

"I look forward to continuing the momentum of Mean Green football in New Orleans," UNT athletic director Wren Baker said.

A bowl win would go a long way toward helping the Mean Green reach that goal.

UNT has fought ever since Littrell has arrived to do another thing besides win, and that is to build a fan base.

The school is making progress — just as much progress on that front as it is in winning on the field.

UNT set a record for average home game attendance — 22,362 — after drawing more than 26,000 in their last two home games.

People still talk about the fun they had in New Orleans during the Mean Green's first four trips to the game. A whole generation of fans was created during that run. Some of those people are among UNT's most faithful followers.

And don't be so sure that UNT coaches sharing the stories of their trip to high school players won't impact recruiting. It definitely helped when UNT was on its run in the Sun Belt all those years ago.

Quite frankly, a few days in New Orleans beats a trip to Shreveport or New Mexico any day.

There are a ton of factors that go into selecting a bowl destination.

UNT didn't get a matchup that offered a chance to post a milestone upset, but it got one heck of a destination.

There is a lot to be said for that.

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

FEATURED PHOTO: With the Louisiana Superdome as the backdrop, North Texas cheerleaders contribute to the festivities at a pep rally before the 2001 New Orleans Bowl. UNT is headed back to New Orleans to face Troy on Dec. 16. (Dallas Morning News file photo)