It All Starts With North Texas

When the 2002 Longhorns launch their most eagerly anticipated football season in recent memory at 7 p.m. Saturday at Royal-Memorial Stadium, highly-touted Texas will square off against a conference champion bowl team that returns 20 starters.

And you thought the ‘Horns were only playing North Texas.

Hey, Texas will win. The stadium will rock; the offense will roll. RB Cedric Benson will eclipse the century mark before the end of the third quarter; CB Nathan Vasher will go coast-to-coast with at least one punt return, LDE Cory Redding will go postal each time the defense gives up a first down, and every UT quarterback will play except all-world signal caller Vince Young.

It’s just that this is not your grandfather’s Mean Green team.

Last season, however, it did not start out that way. After dropping their first five contests, the Denton bunch responded with five straight wins to claim its first conference title since 1973 and first bowl appearance since 1959.

The team was paced by sophomore QB Scott Hall, who passed for 1,453 yards, 17 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Their offense returns all 11 starters, including RB Kevin Galbreath whose 264 attempts was good for 1,119 yards and a spot on the Sun Belt all-conference first-team. Linebacker Cody Spencer is big, fast and led the squad with 105 total tackles in 2001.

Put an asterisk by that team, however. North Texas took a 5-6 team to the inaugural New Orleans Bowl and promptly got spanked by Colorado State, 45-20. UNT was the first team with a losing record to earn a bowl bid since William & Mary did the improbable in 1970.

Part of the Mean Green’s early season woes is the fact that they play a killer non-conference slate to compensate for their otherwise nondescript match-ups in the Sun Belt Conference. (Last season, North Texas had road trips against Oklahoma and Texas Tech and will travel this year to Texas, Alabama, Arizona and TCU). In fact, just two of UNT's first eight games are at home at Fouts Field.

Entering his fifth season as North Texas’ head coach, Darrell Dickey has compiled a 13-32 record in Denton.

The game will be a pay-per-view telecast on DirectTV and on the Dish Network.


Personally, I hate it when the Longhorns play North Texas. And I have seen them go at it all six times, dating back to 1976 when the perpetual visitors were still listed in the media guide as North Texas State University.

Sportswriters can’t help but reach into the bag of cliches for David vs. Goliath rhetoric when teams like this battle. I think it’s more like when the toughest girl in junior high school picks a fight with you: there’s a snowball’s chance you could lose, but it ain’t no thang if you win.

Did…did someone mention ‘lose’ and ‘North Texas’ in the same breath? As would be expected, Texas holds a 6-0 advantage in this brief series. Don’t let that fool you: while this is by no means an evenly-matched series, it is typically a closely-played series.

Dust off the history books and check out these scores:

1976: TEXAS 17, NORTH TEXAS 14

1978: TEXAS 26, NORTH TEXAS 16

1981: TEXAS 23, NORTH TEXAS 10


1988: TEXAS 27, NORTH TEXAS 24

1992: TEXAS 33, NORTH TEXAS 15

Folks, that’s an average margin of victory of 11 points. You expect that against teams from College Station and Lubbock, but not from Denton.

Granted, three of those Texas’ teams (1976, 1988, 1992) were either badly banged-up and/or borderline pitiful, managing a cumulative 15-17-1 record. The other three (1978, 1981, 1983) were bowl teams and finished either first or second in the old SWC. Still, the biggest rout in this series’ history occurred when the 1983 squad (an undefeated, regular season Texas team that was a fumbled punt away from claiming its fourth national title) managed to distance itself from the Mean Green by 20 points. (Would you be disappointed if Texas won by only 20 on Aug. 31?)

To be sure, I expect the ‘Horns to "hang 50" on North Texas at Royal-Memorial Stadium in the opener. Then again, that’s what I expected in 1992, and 1988, and 1983 and…

In short, I have experienced this series as excruciating; North Texas experiences this series as the chance of a lifetime.

North Texas athletic officials clearly schedule games against Texas for it’s share of the gate receipts but also for the improbable chance that, if the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then the Mean Green could actually knock off the ‘Horns in their own backyard.

The unthinkable damn near happened during Texas’ miserable 4-7 campaign in 1988. Texas trailed during the entire contest before rallying late in the fourth quarter behind freshman QB Peter Gardere to eke out an otherwise embarrassing 27-24 win.

The best thing about this match-up: Texas starts the season with a home game. The original schedule had untested Texas opening at North Carolina against a Tar Heel team that will have two games under its belt (not to mention against what should be a supercharged Kenan Memorial Stadium capacity crowd of 60,000-plus on hand to, a-hem, welcome back Mack Brown since his abrupt departure for Austin in Dec., 1997).

The bottom line is it’s best not to overlook North Texas and, if recent history is an indicator, to anticipate a closer-than-expected contest.

The good news for Longhorn fans is that when pesky media types ask Texas players what game is the most important to them (Oklahoma? Texas A&M? at Nebraska?), each invariably answers "North Texas."

Media types, however, tend to focus on the Oct. 12 tilt against Oklahoma, if only because that looms as college football’s sexiest match-up this season and because Brown can’t send us over to Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden for motivational wind sprints.

"If I don’t win against North Texas," Brown said, " then I won’t be around to play Oklahoma."


Texas has an open date the weekend after North Texas, a scheduling quirk that Brown does not like.

"This year, with the open date, the North Texas game is like a season by itself," Brown said. "We’ll use the off week to evaluate where we are, but I don’t like having an open date right after the first game of the season."

Part of the evaluation will be to determine which freshmen will be redshirted this year, a decision that should not be final until about mid-season, Brown said.


Still, with what should be a methodical win against the Mean Green, Texas will extend its home-wining streak to 14 games. That would be good enough for fourth-longest in school history.

Part of what Brown wanted to accomplish in the early days of his tenure was re-establish home field dominance. A win against North Texas would move Texas into a three-way tie (along with Washington and Toledo) for the nation’s third-longest home winning streak. Currently, Texas trails only defending national champ Miami's 16-game home win streak and Nebraska’s string of 21 victories, dating back to the ‘Horns 20-16 triumph in Lincoln, Oct. 31, 1998.

For now, Brown’s home record at Royal-Memorial Stadium stands at 22-2. Texas’ last setback at Royal-Memorial Stadium was the 35-17 loss to Kansas State, Oct. 2, 1999.

Texas’ longest stretch without a home loss is a gaudy 42 games, encompassing two of Royal’s national champion squads, from 1968-1976.

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