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Brett Vito: UNT accomplished a ton despite season-ending slide

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — With the way Seth Littrell harped on it all year, it was hard not to focus on what North Texas didn't do in his second season with the Mean Green when it all came to an end on Saturday night.

Tell me if you've heard this before — UNT's mission was to win a bowl game.

The Mean Green didn't come close in the New Orleans Bowl at the Superdome. Troy made sure of that.

The Trojans came in motivated to cap one of the best seasons in program history the right way and spoiled the Mean Green's efforts to do the same in a 50-30 win that really wasn't even that close.

That hurt for UNT.

It hurt because "accomplishing the mission," as Littrell often calls it, will now be at least a three-year process. It hurt because the Mean Green ended the season on a two-game losing streak. And it especially hurt because Troy is a Sun Belt Conference team.

UNT was a member of the league before jumping to Conference USA after the 2012 season.

The Mean Green were supposed to be above losing to a Sun Belt team at this point.

What UNT's season-ending loss shouldn't overshadow is what the Mean Green have accomplished in two years under Littrell.

It's easy to forget this team was coming off a 1-11 campaign when Littrell arrived before the 2016 season. The idea that UNT would turn it around to the point where it would play in back-to-back bowl games in its first two seasons under Littrell seemed like a distant dream back then.

The point is one Littrell emphasized after UNT's loss to the Trojans, who finished 11-2.

"I am proud of my men," Littrell said. "We did a lot of great things. I have a lot of love for our seniors win, lose or draw. This hurts. We didn't accomplish our mission to win our bowl game, but we did a lot of great things."

It's important to not let a couple of losses to end the season overshadow those accomplishments and what Littrell and his staff have done to set UNT up for the future.

UNT won the C-USA West Division title on its way to a 9-5 finish. It's just the seventh season with at least nine wins in program history.

What might be even more promising is that the Mean Green reached those goals while featuring several young players.

Quarterback Mason Fine set UNT records for passing yards (4,052) and passing touchdowns (31) in a season as a sophomore. Wide receivers Jalen Guyton and wide receiver Rico Bussey also were key contributors in their sophomore campaigns.

The return of that trio is just one reason UNT should feel good about its future.

"I am going to keep working hard, keep that chip on my shoulder and make sure we accomplish our mission next year," Fine said.

Teams need players to set the tone. Fine always has and always will.

One can bet he will be one of UNT's veterans who sits down to evaluate what the Mean Green can do to keep moving in the right direction, despite losing their last two games. Florida Atlantic hammered UNT 41-17 in the C-USA title game back on Dec. 2.

The Mean Green took another step forward despite that skid with their nine-win season.

UNT finished 5-8 a year ago after falling to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The question now is what UNT can do to make another leap.

The Mean Green continued to make headway offensively and set a program record by scoring 497 points on their way to averaging 35.5 points per game.

That's not where UNT's problems are.

They are on the defensive side of the ball. UNT allowed 35.0 points per game on the year, up from 32.6 last season after coughing up 50 to Troy.

Are UNT's problems a talent issue? A scheme issue? A little of both?

Littrell and his staff will have to answer that question.

Recruiting also is an issue to watch. UNT hasn't exactly torn it up when it comes to signing highly regarded recruiting classes.

Don't think that matters? Look back at what Lane Kiffin's FAU team of highly recruited and rated players did to the Mean Green this season — twice.

The Owls hammered the Mean Green 69-31 in the regular season and 41-17 in the C-USA title game. FAU clearly had more talent on the field.

The Mean Green's loss to Troy provided another measuring stick as far as what a bowl-winner looks like. The Trojans were a step ahead in terms of talent as well.

The Mean Green have some issues to work through and some challenges to face. That's obvious.

Just don't let those problems overshadow what UNT accomplished in its first two seasons under Littrell.

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

FEATURED PHOTO: Troy defensive tackle Jamal Stadom knocks the ball free from North Texas quarterback Mason Fine during the Trojans' win against the Mean Green in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday at the Superdome. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)