Brian Scott, NBC 5 Denton County Reporter
It's a big night for Mean Green fans, for the first time in nearly a decade the University of North Texas will hit the post season Wednesday at the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
When North Texas became bowl eligible for the first time since 2004 after their victory on Halloween night, coach Dan McCarney gathered his seniors and discussed possible postseason destinations.
What about Christmas in Hawaii? A trip to New Orleans or maybe New Year's Eve in Memphis?
Nope, the Mean Green seniors preferred staying close to home.
"I really was taken aback. Every one of them wanted to be in the Heart of Dallas Bowl," McCarney said. "It wasn't against anything else or anybody else. It was for family, for friends, for high school coaches, for all us to be together for their first and only bowl appearance for these seniors."
North Texas (8-4) got its wish and plays Wednesday against UNLV (7-5) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the historic Cotton Bowl stadium only about 45 miles from the Denton campus.
"As enticing as Hawaii sounds, I don't think a lot of parents or family members could have made that trip," quarterback Derek Thompson said. "I wanted to stay home and play in front of our fans, right down the road in our backyard."
The Mean Green have won six of their last seven games and came within one victory of playing in the Conference USA championship game in their first season in the new league. Before McCarney arrived three years ago, they were 13-58 the previous six seasons.
UNLV won two games in each of coach Bobby Hauck's first three seasons before breaking through this season with their first bowl since 2000.
"When you go forward with the thought that who would have thought that UNLV would be playing in a New Year's Day football game, it's just really, really exciting," said Hauck, who went to three FCS championship games in seven seasons with Montana before going to UNLV. "We've had so many milestones we surpassed this year. UNLV had never had five Mountain West Conference wins before. First bowl game since 2000. We've had about three winning seasons before this one in the last 30 years, and now we're playing in a New Year's Day bowl game. `'
Here are five things to know when UNLV and North Texas play for the first time since 2000, when the Rebels won 38-0.
BIG TURNAROUNDS: North Texas has already doubled its win total from 2012 to 2013, going from four to eight. Only twice in the 100 years of North Texas football have teams had better improvements. The best was the 1983 team that won eight games after a 2-9 record in 1982. UNLV's seven wins so far this season are one more than its combined total the past three seasons.
TD-SCORING REBELS: Tim Cornett is UNLV's career rushing leader already with 3,700 yards, and is in reach of a couple of other 40-year-old school records -- his 35 rushing TDs and 38 overall TDs are two short of in both categories. Junior receiver Devante Davis has a set a school-record this season with 14 receiving TDs. Davis' 1,194 receiving yards this season are third-most at UNLV, and he could have the school record with a 153-yard game Wednesday.
SMALL RETURNS: North Texas and UNLV have two of the most productive kick returners in the nation, and both are only 5-foot-9. Mean Green returner Brelan Chancellor is averaging 28.1 yards per return, which is ninth nationally. UNLV's Marcus Sullivan is average 28.8 yards per return, though since he didn't play in four games doesn't qualify to top Chancellor in the NCAA statistics.
INITIAL COTTON: North Texas coach Dan McCarney has been coaching since 1977, with stops at places like Iowa, Wisconsin, Iowa State and Florida. But he had never stepped foot in the Cotton Bowl stadium until a few weeks ago after the Mean Green got their Heart of Dallas Bowl bid. "I had flown over It, driven by it, but had never been in there," he said. "You just feel it. When I grew up, it was the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. ... It's pretty special to stop and think of all the coaches and players that have come down through that same tunnel, been on that same field."
GREEN REBEL: it was announced that Smatresk is leaving UNLV to become president of North Texas, a position he will assume Feb. 3. Smatresk said he made the move to be closer to family, including two of his children and a newborn granddaughter.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: UNLV and North Texas, two of the most improved teams from 2012 to 2013, both end long postseason droughts in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Rebels are in their first bowl since 2000, and the Mean Green play in the postseason for the first time since 2004. UNLV improved from two wins -- its total in each of the past three seasons -- to seven this season. North Texas already has a four-win improvement after going 4-8 last season.
KEY MATCHUP: Brandin Byrd, who has 1,023 yards rushing, and the North Texas running game against the UNLV defense. The Mean Green are 7-0 this season when rushing for 150 yards or more. UNLV has allowed 222 yards rushing a game, and allowed at least 150 yards nine times.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
UNLV: Running back Tim Cornett is UNLV's career rushing leader with 3,700 yards, including 1,251 this season with 15 touchdowns. He is also in reach of a couple of other 40-year-old school records -- his 35 rushing TDs and 38 overall TDs are two short of in both categories. He could also break the all-purpose record with 214 yards.
UNT: LB Zach Orr has 114 tackles this season, including 11 tackles for loss. He also returned a fumble 55 yards for a touchdown against Rice and goes into his final game with 22 1/2 career tackles for loss, and nine fumble recoveries -- four this season.
FACTS & FIGURES: North Texas has already set a school record with 4,939 total yards. ... The Mean Green are 2-5 in bowl games. ... UNLV is playing only the fourth neutral site game since its first football season in 1968, and its first since the 1984 California Bowl. The Rebels' other two bowl games were at their own stadium in Las Vegas. ... North Texas leads Conference USA and is ninth nationally, allowing only 18.1 points per game -- only 6.5 after halftime. ... For the first time since 2004, UNLV players will have their names on the back of their jerseys. That is a reward from coach Bobby Hauck for making it to a bowl.