Time: Jan. 1 at noon ET
Place: Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas
North Texas at a Glance: In his third year as head coach, Dan McCarney led the Mean Green to their first bowl game since 2004—which also happens to be the last time UNT had a winning season. At 8-4, North Texas was one win away from making the Conference USA Championship Game in its first year in the league.
UNLV at a Glance: Head coach Bobby Hauck went from the hot seat to orchestrating one of the best turnarounds in the country with the Rebels. At 7-5, UNLV won more games in 2013 than in Hauck's first three years in Las Vegas (six). Late last month, Hauck agreed to a three-year contract extension that takes him through the 2016 season.
History: UNLV is 4-0 all time against North Texas, with the last meeting coming in 2000 by way of a 38-0 shutout in favor of the Rebels.
Note: All following quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
The post-Todd Dodge era for North Texas has been a transformation to say the least. From a no-huddle, spread offense to a pro-style, run-first attack, the Mean Green have redefined themselves in a short period of time.
UNT is finally having success on offense too, scoring roughly 10 more points a game this season (31.5) than a year ago.
It begins with running the ball and senior Brandin Byrd, who has rushed for over 200 yards twice and has over 1,000 yards. In eight wins, Byrd has averaged 115 yards per game; in four losses, he's averaged 26 yards per game.
In short, when Byrd is a non-factor, the Mean Green haven't been successful. Byrd and/or fellow running back Antoinne Jimmerson must have a big day.
What North Texas really relies on, though, is a stout defense. The Mean Green are No. 9 in the country in scoring defense, No. 1 in red-zone defense and No. 15 in turnover margin. For McCarney and Co., it's all about running the ball, playing field position and playing stingy defense.
North Texas doesn't have a lot of success playing from behind, going 1-4 when trailing at the half. The more success UNT has defensively in the first half, the better.
Caleb Herring didn't begin the season as the guy at quarterback, but he certainly took over that role when Nick Sherry struggled early.
Herring has been running the Rebels offense since a Week 3 win over Central Michigan, and he's been an outstanding dual-threat weapon for UNLV ever since. It's important for him to have another solid game running and throwing against North Texas. The Rebels defense has given up over 30 points a game on the season, so the margin for error on offense is small.
But Herring has made good decisions, throwing 22 touchdowns to just four interceptions. It's a vast improvement over where he was two years ago.
UNLV has playmakers on offense and has scored at least 40 points in the last two games. The question is whether that offense is going to need to win in a shootout. UNLV is ranked 110th in rushing defense. If the Rebels can't stop the run, which is the bread and butter of North Texas' offense, it could be a long day.
That, or UNLV is going to have to force turnovers to get its defense off the field.
Ideally, the Rebels need to get out to a quick lead, perhaps by attempting some long passes downfield early.
Wide Receiver Brelan Chancellor (Sr.)
Bryd has already been mentioned as a cornerstone of North Texas' offense, but the playmaker is Chancellor.
He's a do-it-all athlete. Chancellor leads the team with 718 receiving yards and four touchdowns, but he's used occasionally in the running game. He's also used in the return game and has both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown.
North Texas isn't fancy on offense, but offensive coordinator Mike Canales will work in a few different ways to get Chancellor the ball.
Linebacker Zach Orr (Sr.)
Orr is the unquestioned leader of North Texas' defense. The senior leads the team in tackles with 114 and is tied for first with 11 tackles for loss. He's been a ball hawk too, forcing three fumbles and recovering four—one of which was returned for a touchdown against Rice.
Beyond the stats, Orr has played all four years. He's the center piece for that side of the ball.
Defensive back Marcus Trice (Sr.)
Trice transferred to North Texas from Oklahoma, where he originally signed in 2009. Trice doesn't stand tall at a listed height of 5'8", but he's turned out to be a valuable addition to the secondary. He's third on the team in tackles with 83, but he leads the team in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (eight).
Wide Receiver Devante Davis (Jr.)
Davis has the size (6'3", 210 pounds) and production (1,194 yards, 14 touchdowns) of a No. 1 receiving target. He's been outstanding for UNLV, going over the 100-yard mark five times in 2013. He went off in the season-ending game against San Diego State, where he hauled in eight passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns.
Running back Tim Cornett (Sr.)
Cornett has been the work horse for UNLV's offense the past two seasons, and the stats are fascinatingly similar. He had 252 carries this year, as opposed to 242 a year ago, for 1,251 yards—a mere 19 more than last season. He's averaged five yards a carry the last two years, and his longest runs from '13 and '12 are 75 and 76 yards, respectively.
Talk about consistency.
Linebacker Tani Maka (Sr.)
Maka originally signed with UCLA out of high school in 2009 but instead began playing for the Rebels a year later. His 6.5 tackles for loss lead the team, and he's forced two fumbles. Without a doubt, he's been one of the biggest difference-makers for UNLV's defense.
Upon the announcement that North Texas and UNLV would be playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, both schools released statements.
"It is an honor to be invited to participate in the Heart of Dallas Bowl," McCarney said. "We are tremendously excited to be involved in a New Year's Day bowl game at a venue with all the history of the Cotton Bowl Stadium. This will make it easy for all of our fans to come and watch this team make history while going for its ninth win of the season."
"Obviously, our program is very excited to be playing in a bowl game—particularly one on New Year's Day," Hauck said in a separate statement. "I'm very excited for our players who have worked so hard to have this experience. We're going to prepare hard, have fun and have a good performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on January 1."
Bowl games can feature some wild plays and take unexpected turns. The Heart of Dallas Bowl will be no different. After a back-and-forth first quarter with plenty of points, both teams settle down for the remainder of the game.
Herring will have a big day passing for UNLV, but in the end, North Texas' defense makes just enough plays to stay ahead, and the Mean Green run down the clock in the fourth quarter to secure their first bowl win in over a decade.
Score prediction: North Texas 34, UNLV 28
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All stats courtesy of the NCAA.