North Texas’ season of reconstruction under first-year coach Seth Littrell received an extension after the 5-7 Mean Green on Sunday accepted an invitation to play Army at the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 27 at the Cotton Bowl.
The game marks a rematch between the two. The Mean Green collected seven turnovers in topping the Black Knights 35-18 on Oct. 22 in West Point, N.Y.
The bowl game is the second part of what constitutes patriots week in North Texas. Two days before Christmas, Navy and Louisiana Tech will meet in the Armed Forces Bowl at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Bulldogs and Mean Green are two of Conference USA’s record seven bowl participants.
The guys that were here, I’m extremely proud of the way they bought into this program, this coaching staff, trusted us and built relationships. I’m just extremely proud and excited. It’s an unbelievable feeling.
North Texas coach Seth Littrell
North Texas had a chance to firm up its bowl status with a victory over UT El Paso in the regular-season finale. But that game ended in a disappointing blowout loss, denying the Mean Green the six-win threshold of bowl eligibility.
However, the Mean Green backed in as one of a handful of five-win teams selected by the NCAA because of a lack of bowl-eligible teams across the nation. Those selections were based on Academic Progress Rate scores, the measure used to track student-athletes chances of graduating. Among the 128 FBS schools, North Texas is 10th in APR and second among teams that did not qualify for bowls.
The Heart of Dallas had a bowl tie-in with the Big Ten and Conference USA. When the Big Ten qualified four teams in CFP bowls, a spot opened up for Army, an independent.
North Texas is making a return to the Heart of Dallas, site of its 36-14 victory over UNLV in 2014.
The bowl selection continues a rather remarkable turnabout for North Texas, which is coming off a season of upheaval that ultimately ended 1-11 under Dan McCarney and interim coach Mike Canales. North Texas athletic director Wren Baker and Littrell credited McCarney and former AD Rick Villarreal for instituting a strong culture of academics in the program.
“The transition is always a challenge when it’s a new coaching staff,” Littrell said. “The guys that were here, I’m extremely proud of the way they bought into this program, this coaching staff, trusted us and built relationships. I’m just extremely proud and excited. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
The Black Knights are 6-5 with a regular-season finale yet to play in their annual meeting with Navy on Saturday.
Navy had put itself in the conversation for the Cotton Bowl before cementing its place in this game with an ugly loss to Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
The Midshipmen (9-3), a partner of the bowl, were a preference for game officials and will be making a second appearance in Fort Worth.
Louisiana Tech wasn’t the first choice of dates for this ball, but the Big 12 failed to qualify enough teams to fill its slot in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Bulldogs, who will be making a third consecutive bowl appearance under coach Skip Holtz, finished 8-5 after losing to Western Kentucky in the C-USA championship game.
The Cotton Bowl went to the back of the line in the CFP rotation and will follow up its national semifinal a year ago with a less glamorous pairing in January between teams from the land of cheese and an outsider from Kalamazoo making its first appearance in this bowl game.
Yet, No. 15 Western Michigan heads to Arlington for the 81st edition of the game to play No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3) on Jan. 2, joining Alabama as one of two undefeated conference champions.
The Broncos, riding a 15-game winning streak, enter 13-0 and champions of the Mid-American Conference with two previous victories over Northwestern and Illinois of the Big Ten.
“We scheduled Ohio State and Michigan State last year,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “We told our players if you want to be a champion one day, you’ve got to beat the best and not just the MAC champions.”