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North Texas finalizing new deals for head coach Seth Littrell, AD Wren Baker

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After a successful turnaround campaign in 2017, North Texas is preparing to sweeten the deal for head coach Seth Littrell.

The Denton Record-Chronicle reports that the school is in the process of finalizing a new contract for both Littrell and athletic director Wren Baker, with regents approving moving forward in the process last month. While final numbers and details have not been released, the expectation is that both will get a raise and likely have increased buyouts after the coach and athletic director were mentioned in connection to bigger jobs this offseason.

Littrell took over a program two years ago that was coming off a 1-11 record and has turned things around to the point where the team has made back-to-back bowl games in his first two seasons in Denton. The Mean Green won the CUSA West division in 2017 and wrapped up the year with nine wins for the first time since 2013 — including just the fourth winning record for UNT in 15 seasons.

The former Oklahoma running back and Mike Leach assistant was the highest paid head coach in Conference USA according to USA Today‘s salary database and he is expected to get a further raise in the new deal that should take Littrell over the $1 million mark for annual salary. Baker arrived in Denton the year after the head coach and has helped raise significant sums to upgrade facilities at North Texas during his short tenure so far.

The Mean Green have already begun spring football practices and will host their annual spring game on March 30th.

Conference USA releases 2018 schedule

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Conference USA released its 2018 schedule on Tuesday, confirming that once again the league will play football this fall.

The league slate kicks off Sept. 8 with FIU’s visit to Old Dominion, while the first game involving a C-USA team is set for Aug. 25, when Rice hosts Prairie View A&M. Conference games are scattered throughout the month of September, with the first full Saturday slate coming on Oct. 6 with Old Dominion at Florida Atlantic, UAB at Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee at Marshall, North Texas at UTEP and UTSA at Rice.

While the MAC has opted for a full embrace of midweek football, Conference USA has gone in the exact opposite direction. Not one C-USA game is scheduled as of today for a weeknight — Thursday or Friday included — and only one game will be played on a day other than Saturday, a Friday, Aug. 31 visit to Wisconsin by Western Kentucky.

The most-anticipated non-conference games involving C-USA teams are Florida Atlantic’s opener at Oklahoma and on Sept. 1 and the Owls’ Sept. 22 visit to reigning American and Peach Bowl champion UCF. North Texas also has two shots to win nationwide respect for the league in its opener against SMU on Sept. 1 in Denton and a Sept. 15 visit to retooling Arkansas.

The highlight of the league schedule comes on Nov. 17 with a rematch of the 2017 title game when Florida Atlantic visits North Texas. The Owls won both meetings last season by a combined score of 110-48.

The 14th C-USA Championship will be held on Dec. 1 at the home of the division winner with the best conference record. FAU will look to become the second straight back-to-back C-USA champion, joining Western Kentucky in 2015-16.

Arkansas kicker Cole Hedlund reportedly transfers to North Texas

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And you can pardon the whole of the state of Arkansas if they let out a collective “thank goodness.”

Citing multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle is reporting that Cole Hedlund is transferring to North Texas.  After redshirting as a true freshman in 2014 at Arkansas, Hedlund spent the next three seasons as a placekicker for the Razorbacks.

The Argyle, Tex., native opted to transfer from UA for his final season of eligibility.  He’s the youngest son of UNT women’s soccer coach John Hedlund.

For his career with the Razorbacks, Hedlund hit on 14 of his 24 field goal attempts.  He also connected on all 91 extra point attempts.  His best season came in 2015 when he led the team in scoring with 85 points.

The past season, however, was a rough one.  After missing both field goal attempts in a Sept. 9 loss to TCU — the misses came from 20 and 23 yards out — Hedlund never attempted another kick for the Razorbacks the rest of the season.

“It was basically a PAT, and it was a perfect protection and a perfect snap. It’s inexcusable,” then-head coach Bret Bielema said at the time.

Former Georgia Tech, NFL RB Tashard Choice named North Texas running backs coach

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According to the website Sportrac.comTashard Choice earned a little more than $3.5 million during his 6-year NFL career. The former Cowboys, Bills and Colts running back lasted a little longer than the average player in the NFL, along the way earning a good bit of money — not enough to live on for the rest of your life, but certainly more than you or I earn in six years.

Out of the game at 29 years old, Choice had to find something else to do with his time. And like so many former players — but not many former players of his caliber — Choice decided to get into college football coaching, which meant taking the lowest job on the totem poll and then grinding his way up.

Well, the former Georgia Tech running back just moved one rung up.

Choice dipped his toe in the coaching waters by working with the Cowboys during OTAs and minicamp in 2016, then worked for North Texas as a quality control assistant in 2017, assisting with the running backs.

On Friday, Choice was announced as North Texas’s full-time running backs coach.

Choice got the job because of the work he did with Jeffrey Wilson, who finished second in Conference USA by running for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in just 11 games. Wilson was a senior in 2017, so Choice’s job now will be to develop rising sophomores Nic Smith and Evan Johnson, who combined to carry 181 times for 923 yards and nine touchdowns during the Mean Green’s 9-5 campaign.

Troy makes Big Easy work of North Texas in New Orleans Bowl

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Troy jumped out to a big lead early, watched it dwindle to two points by halftime, then jumped out to another large lead to begin the second half and held onto it this time, exploding for a 50-30 win over North Texas in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

After watching a potential 29-7 lead in the second quarter turn into a 22-20 lead with North Texas getting the ball to open the second half, Troy intercepted North Texas quarterback Mason Fine at the Mean Green 27, which Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers capitalized on by hitting Damion Willis for a 24-yard fade and then scored one play later on a 1-yard keeper, giving Troy a 29-20 lead at the 13:33 mark of the third quarter.

The Trojans forced a three-and-out on UNT’s next drive, then moved 92 yards in just five plays, scoring on a 59-yard strike from Silvers to Tevaris McCormick. North Texas attempted to climb back in the game with a 13-play march, but Fine was sacked on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Troy 6-yard line and Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell elected for a 24-yard Trevor Moore field goal rather than a do-or-die fourth-down conversion, pulling the score to 36-23 at the 4:26 mark of the third quarter.

North Texas forced a three-and-out and accepted the ball at its own 33 with a chance to climb back in the game, but Tyler Murray effectively ended it by sacking Fine and forcing his third turnover inside UNT territory. The Trojans hopped on the ball at the Mean Green 13 and, after a penalty, scored on a 20-yard strike from Silvers (24-of-31 for 306 yards) to John Johnson, putting the game out of reach at 43-23 with 2:02 left in the third quarter.

The dagger came when North Texas coughed up its fourth minus-territory turnover of the game, a Michael Lawrence fumble at the UNT 47, and Silvers hit Willis for his fourth passing touchdown of the game and fifth total score, a 10-yard strike with 4:07 left in the game.

Fine completed the scoring with a 17-yard cosmetic touchdown pass to Turner Smiley with 28 seconds left. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Fine completed 30-of-54 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns while getting sacked six times and turning the ball over four times. Playing without leading rusher Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas mustered only 50 yards on running plays. Overall, Troy won the turnover battle 5-2 and out-gained the Mean Green 437-295.

The win allows Troy to conclude its best season since joining the Sun Belt in 2004. The Trojans claimed their first SBC crown since 2009, won their fourth bowl game ever and registered their first 11-win season since doing so as an FCS member in 1999. North Texas (9-5) dropped to 1-4 in its five New Orleans Bowl appearances, slunk to 2-7 all-time in bowl games, missed a shot at its first 10-win season since 1947 and fell to 2-9 all-time against Troy.

Troy accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard Josh Anderson scoring run. The Trojans immediately pushed the lead to two scores when North Texas quarterback Fine was sacked and fumbled at his own 14, setting up Anderson’s second touchdown run of the first half of the first quarter. Silvers hit Johnson for a 2-point conversion to stake the Trojans to a 15-0 lead at the 9:21 mark of the opening frame.

The Mean Green went three-and-out on their next possession but, facing the prospect of getting buried for the game in just the first quarter, the North Texas defense rose up when Joshua Wheeler sacked Silvers on third down at the Troy 39. The UNT offense awoke with an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 12-yard pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr.

Anderson immediately responded with a 55-yard run on the final play of the first quarter, and Silvers completed the drive four plays later with a 7-yard strike to Willis at the 14:24 mark of the second quarter. North Texas attempted to return service with another touchdown, but Fine under-threw a wide open Bussey on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 31 and his fourth down pass to Michael Lawrence was dropped.

Troy threatened to push its lead to three touchdowns on its next drive, moving to the North Texas 22, when disaster struck — a snap went over Silvers’s head and was scooped up by the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald, who returned the loose pigskin 56 yards for a touchdown. Fine’s 2-point conversion rush failed, but North Texas was still within 22-13 with 5:49 left in the first half.

North Texas had a golden opportunity to pull within one score of the Trojans when Kishawn McClain intercepted Silvers at the UNT 46 on Troy’s first play of the ensuing possession, but the Mean Green were forced to punt after just one first down.

But North Texas forced its third straight stop, this drive ended by another Wheeler sack, and Fine capitalized with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence with 49 seconds left before the break to pull the Mean Green within two.