North Texas’ nine-year bowl drought formally ended on Sunday when the school accepted an invitation to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1 at the Cotton Bowl.
The Mean Green, a member of Conference USA, will play UNLV, a member of the Mountain West and another bowl-starved institution, at 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day. The Rebels’ invitation ends a string of 13 seasons without an appearance in college football’s postseason.
“I’m ecstatic for this team and these coaches and the fans and everybody who’s been missing out on this for too long,” said North Texas coach Dan McCarney, who took over a program that went 2-10 in 2010.
“It feels great because I wanted it so badly for these kids. None have even been through winning season [in college]. And for those 22 seniors … it means so much.”
The game, televised by ESPNU, was supposed to pit teams from Conference USA and the Big Ten.
The matchup was finalized through a trade of bowls made among the Big Ten and Mountain West conferences, mostly for logistical purposes, but also with the big hand of ESPN, which has the liberty to modify some of the bowls it televises in order to create matchups it prefers.
North Texas earned bowl eligibility with an 8-4 record after going 4-8 the season before, marking the biggest turnaround at the school from one season to the next since 1984.
The bowl appearance marks the first for North Texas since a string of four consecutive from 2001-04 at the New Orleans Bowl as the Sun Belt Conference champions.
The nine-year bowl drought was the sixth longest in the nation.
A lesser known fact: The game will represent North Texas’ fourth at the Cotton Bowl in the Mean Green’s 100 years of football history, though the first in the postseason.
North Texas faced Brigham Young there in 1971 and followed with regular-season games in 1981 against Oklahoma State and UT Arlington.
The Mean Green is 0-3.
“To have the opportunity to play in front of our fans in our back yard, that’s what we wanted as a football team, the seniors especially,” said quarterback Derek Thompson, a fifth-year senior and witness to a program that went 14-34 in four previous seasons.
This will be the Mean Green’s second appearance in a New Year’s Day bowl. North Texas played on Jan. 1 in the 1948 Salad Bowl, a predecessor of today’s Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix.
The Mean Green ran off five consecutive victories during one stretch and finished the regular season in second in the West Division of Conference USA, sharing that spot with UT San Antonio.
The Roadrunners, in their second season in the FBS, were not eligible for a bowl.