Ten years in, North Texas and UTSA is Texas' best rivalry

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In just 10 years, this series has fired coaches and cemented legacies.

North Texas and UTSA isn’t on many casual fans’ radars as one of the most consistently competitive games in college football but between fanbases and within each program, the annual game has become the state’s best intrastate rivalry with higher stakes seemingly every time out.

This season, the Roadrunners look to break a 10-year winless streak in Denton. For all that UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor’s accomplished, winning in Denton hasn’t been one of them. The last time UTSA won up north was also the first time the two programs met.

In 2013, UTSA’s first season in Conference USA, North Texas was in the driver’s seat in the C-USA West before then 5-5 UTSA upset the 7-3 Mean Green in Apogee Stadium. That result eventually sent Rice to the championship game, a team that North Texas had already beaten.

Just like that, a proud program with decades of football history saw itself eye-to-eye with an upstart that was only in its second full season.

“Dallas and San Antonio are two very different cities,” Javi Cardenas, publisher of BirdsUp.com said. “It’s two very different types of people and I think it's kind of followed through on the football programs as well.

“UNT has a strong history and UTSA barely started out but joined the same conference right away.”

What started off as just a new friendly conference rivalry kicked into overdrive in 2017.

What’s known as “The Drive” to North Texas fans is simultaneously seen as a moment that was the eventual downfall of then-UTSA head coach Frank Wilson. North Texas quarterback Mason Fine engineered a 98-yard game-winning drive in less than a minute. The game was the catalyst for a Mean Green era that saw them finish the year out 5-3 and then go 9-3 the following season while UTSA fell to 3-3 to end 2017, missed a bowl game before going 3-9 in 2018. Wilson was eventually fired in 2019 and went 0-2 vs North Texas his last two seasons. Mason Fine dominated the rivalry during that era and so did Littrell. Fine went 3-1 vs UTSA as starting quarterback.

Since then, however, the script has virtually flipped.

Replace Fine with current UTSA quarterback Frank Harris and Seth Littrell with Jeff Traylor and UTSA’s swung the pendulum back toward San Antonio. Traylor is currently 3-1 vs the Mean Green and like the 2017 game proved to be Wilson’s downfall, the 2022 CUSA Championship proved to be Littrell’s as he was let go following that loss in somewhat surprising fashion to national media. The title-game win gives UTSA the edge in the all-time series, 6-5.

“They got the last laugh so they’re probably coming in here thinking that’s on our mind,” North Texas receiver Damon Ward said of the conference title game loss.

JD Davis, a recruiting analyst and reporter for GoMeanGreen.com, admits that for him UTSA has supplanted SMU as the program’s biggest football rival. Cardenas admitted the same, with North Texas being the game UTSA fans highlight more than Texas State as of late despite a longer history in basketball and baseball with the Bobcats.

“I don't think it's a hate, whether they admit it or not, I think it’s a mutual respect kind of thing,” Cardenas said.

For Davis, who grew up in East Texas just 30 minutes outside of Gilmer and who’s driven past Jeff Traylor Stadium countless times, he can’t help but acknowledge the success UTSA has built in a short time. The firing of Seth Littrell wasn’t popular to outsiders, but Davis saw Eric Morris’ hiring in the same vein as Traylor’s – a chance to take North Texas to a new level.

“That’s definitely the hope with Eric Morris,” Davis said. “That he can kind of take what Seth built and do the same thing Traylor’s doing to what Frank Wilson built at UTSA.”

Even when they’re not playing for championships or getting coaches fired based on results, the two programs know that certain losses just sting more. During Traylor’s second season, UTSA was 11-0 and ranked for the first time ever. North Texas started the year 1-6 before rolling off four straight wins and needed to beat the Roadrunners at home to reach a bowl.

North Texas rolled previously unbeaten UTSA, 45-23, in a rain-soaked affair behind running backs Ikaika Ragsdale, DeAndre Torrey and Ayo Adeyi. The game reminded everyone that winning in Denton is still something Traylor has yet to do.

“As much as you’d like to forget about it, you just can’t,” Traylor said. “They kicked our tail in that day, and it was a beat down to be honest with you. Those same (running backs) are there, the same ones we couldn’t tackle that day are still totin’ that thing. You don’t have to talk about it, they know. That was a rough day, and it still bothers us but nothing we can do about it now except be better from it.”

This year’s contest has a new wrinkle with Morris and Traylor having previous relations from Morris’ time as head coach of Incarnate Word. Traylor initially leaned on the 38-year-old for advice on how to navigate the city during his first few seasons in town.  Morris may be new to the game, but he’s familiar with its recent history.

“I haven’t been a part of the great battles that have gone on the last six or seven years, our kids have,” Morris said. “I think they know. They feel it and they understand it. They’ve been through those battles together.

“They’re (UTSA is) winning for a reason. They’ve done a great job on the recruiting trail; I think they’re well-coached and tough. Jeff’s done a phenomenal job of building a culture that those kids just believe in.”

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