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Reunited in the New Mexico Bowl: A Brief History of North Texas vs Utah State

Though the schools haven’t met on the field in 14 years, their pasts remain intertwined. The programs from the last meeting would not recognize the 2018 version of themselves

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl - Army v North Texas Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The last time UNT met Utah State on the football field, most of the North Texas players were barely into elementary school. Current North Texas Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell was still a graduate assistant at Kansas. And North Texas was enjoying a run of four straight Sun Belt conference championships, going undefeated in conference play 2002-04, including the two years the Aggies briefly called the Sun Belt home.

A lot has changed since then. Then-UNT coach Darrell Dickey, who now has a practice field named after him at North Texas, is currently the offensive coordinator for Texas A&M. Records set during that run by North Texas have seen themselves fall, under the tenure of Littrell and quarterback Mason Fine.

In fact, for a lot of North Texas fans (at least, fans not currently enrolled at UNT), the early 00’s don’t seem like too long ago. The first year of the New Orleans Bowl, if you can believe it, the tie-ins were Sun Belt and Mountain West. The Mean Green lost that first one to Colorado State, a team Utah State now gets to enjoy every year.

With the breakup of the Big West, that time was also difficult for Utah State. After two years of competing as an independent program, the Aggies had to join the Sun Belt as a football-only member in order to solidify their schedule. That association lasted only two years before the WAC came calling, and then eventually the Mountain West. This year the Aggies spent some time ranked in the AP Poll, something North Texas hasn’t managed since the 1970’s.

These two programs are now set to meet back up in this year’s New Mexico Bowl, and that means it’s time to get reacquainted. Before we look at the future, let’s take a minute to look at the recent meetings between the Aggies and Mean Green, which also happens to be a complete recap of all seven meetings:

1996

Site: Logan, UT

UNT coach: Matt Simon

USU coach: John L. Smith

Final Score: Utah State 21, North Texas 13

Years before their time in the Sun Belt, the Aggies and the Mean Green shared the Big West conference. This year was UNT’s first year as a member, and first time to meet Utah State on the field. After transitioning up to FBS (then I-A) the previous year, North Texas was in for a rude awakening as they got their bearings against new competition. The Aggies won comfortably, and would finish the year 6-5 (4-1), compared to a still reeling UNT Eagles squad, who went 5-6 (3-2), just out of bowl consideration.

1997

Site: Denton, TX

UNT coach: Matt Simon

USU coach: John L. Smith

Final Score: North Texas 51, Utah State 48

A high scoring contest, North Texas came roaring back from the previous years defeat, and were the Aggies’ lone conference loss that season. Though North Texas did not make a bowl that season either (finishing 4-7), seeing the Aggies go 6-6 (4-1) en route to tying Nevada for a conference title must have been a reward unto itself, with UNT knowing they defeated the eventual conference champs. This was the final year for both of these head coaches, so we never got a Smith and Simon rematch, but the teams found a way to make things interesting the very next year, anyway.

1998

Site: Logan, UT

UNT coach: Darrell Dickey

USU coach: Dave Arslanian

Final Score: Utah State 28, North Texas 27

Late 1990’s college football looks like an alien landscape compared to what we have today. In 1998, the Big West included Boise State, Utah State, New Mexico State, North Texas, Nevada, and Idaho, the last of which beat all those teams for the conference title that year. North Texas finished a respectable third in conference, going 3-2 in conference play (though 3-8 overall). So the world didn’t really turn on the result of this game, but finishing ahead of the Aggies in conference was a step in the right direction for the Mean Green. This had all the makings of a new rivalry, were it not perhaps for the 1,270 miles between campuses.

1999

Site: Denton, TX

UNT coach: Darrell Dickey

USU coach: Dave Arslanian

Final Score: Utah State 34, North Texas 7

Not nearly the result North Texas was hoping for, certainly, this remains the largest margin of victory by either team in this series. The Eagles were surely experiencing growing pains under Coach Dickey, as they finished dead last in the conference that year, at 2-9 (1-5). Bigger things were in store.

2000

Site: Logan, UT

UNT coach: Darrell Dickey

USU coach: Mick Dennehy

Final Score: Utah State 17, North Texas 12

Another coaching change for the Aggies, and a chance for North Texas to pounce, though sadly it was not to be. Utah State went 4-1 in conference that year, though finished 5-6 overal. In a sign of things to come, every single Big West team finished with a losing record, except for conference champion Boise State. This would be the last meeting between the Aggies and North Texas as members of the Big West, as the conference dropped football and the Sun Belt arose from the ashes. It would have been nice to go out on a high note, but luckily these two teams weren’t done with each other just yet.

2003

Site: Denton, TX

UNT coach: Darrell Dickey

USU coach: Mick Dennehy

Final Score: North Texas 37, Utah State 27

In 2001, North Texas joined the newly-created Sun Belt, and Utah State went independent. After two years of that (and back-to-back 4-7 seasons), the Aggies saw dwindling returns and fewer independents around them, so they joined the Sun Belt as a football only member.

Though I couldn’t find it online, I do remember seeing a letter to the editor of the NT Daily excoriating North Texas and expressing “concern” that Utah State and their fine football tradition would steamroll over all Sun Belt competition during their time there. North Texas won their first meeting as Sun Belt rivals by ten (North Texas’ largest margin of victory in this series), and Utah State finished 3-9 (3-3). The Mean Green, meanwhile, won their third consecutive conference title that year after going 9-4 (7-0). This was the best team Denton would see for some time, until Littrell and Fine arrived over a decade later.

2004

Site: Logan, UT

UNT coach: Darrell Dickey

USU coach: Mick Dennehy

Final Score: North Texas 31, Utah State 23

It’s unfair to speak ill of Utah State during this time, as they were lagging far behind in-state rivals Utah and BYU until just a few years ago. The Mountain West has been incredibly good for this team and this university (more on that in below), but where the Aggies had UNT’s number in the Big West, the Sun Belt belonged to the Mean Green. North Texas finished that season 7-5 (7-0), and the Aggies again finished with a losing record, leaving for the WAC after that season. And it’s a good thing, too, as UNT had to wait another several years before they had a winning record again.

2018

Site: Albuquerque, NM

UNT coach: Seth Littrell, until further notice

USU coach: Frank Maile, interim

Line: Utah State -9, O/U 67.5

Fourteen years later, these teams are unrecognizable. Utah State was at the top of their conference until that final game against Boise State, and North Texas is winning nine games often enough that it’s starting to feel normal, to say nothing of knocking off an SEC opponent.

In terms of Group of Five competition, it is broader and deeper (hence the point of Underdog Dynasty), and the Mountain West sits near the top of those so-called G5 schools thanks to competition that can run with anyone in the FBS, particularly Boise State, Fresno State, and these Utah State Aggies.

This will hardly be the rebirth of a rivalry in New Mexico, but both teams are in a great place in conference play and are sure to put on a great show for the fans. Their fortunes in 2019 are only looking up, and with a little luck and a few Power Five shenanigans, they may still meet as conference rivals again one day.