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Sub-.500 bowl teams now becoming almost routine
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NEW YORK (AP) — The Heart of Dallas Bowl will be a rematch between two teams that played in October — and one of them is heading into the game with a 5-7 record.

Unusual? Yes. But scenarios like this simply come with the territory now.

With 80 bowl spots to fill, some postseason games ended up with odd matchups this year. North Texas will play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl after going 5-7, and the game will be a rematch against an Army teams it met six weeks ago. Mississippi State is also going to a bowl at 5-7. The Bulldogs face Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

“We’re fortunate to have the opportunity,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t even feel like we could get in this way, but we did, and so we’re going to take it.”

Hawaii is also heading to a bowl with a losing record. The Rainbow Warriors (6-7) will play in the Hawaii Bowl against Middle Tennessee. The reason some sub-.500 teams were given a reprieve is because there weren’t enough eligible teams to fill all the spots.

That shortage also allows Army (6-5) and South Alabama (6-6) to go to bowls even though both have multiple wins over FCS schools. Teams are only supposed to count one FCS win for bowl eligibility purposes, but since there were openings, the Black Knights and Jaguars are in.

South Alabama faces Air Force in the Arizona Bowl. The Jaguars were supposed to play LSU in November, but that game was canceled when the Tigers needed to play a rescheduled game against Florida. South Alabama played Presbyterian instead and won, so that switch may have been the difference between reaching a bowl and missing the postseason.

There were sub-.500 teams in bowls last season too, so this may be the new normal in college football. North Texas and Mississippi State weren’t exactly apologizing Sunday. The Bulldogs’ Twitter account boasted that Mississippi State is one of only five Southeastern Conference schools to reach a bowl every season this decade.

Since the Academic Progress Rate plays a role in which sub.-500 teams play on, coaches can take pride in that.

“This is a great opportunity for one of the winningest senior classes in school history and for our program to build momentum for 2017,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said in a statement. “It also speaks volumes of our student-athletes for their commitment in the classroom to qualify for a bowl based on our successful APR.”

North Texas lost four of its last five games in the regular season, but reaching a bowl — no matter how it happened — is still a big step forward after the Mean Green went 1-11 in 2015.

North Texas won 35-18 at Army on Oct. 22. Regular-season rematches are rare in bowls, but there are some positives for the Heart of Dallas Bowl in this matchup. The bowl was supposed to match Conference USA against the Big Ten, but with one Big Ten team in the playoff and three more in New Year’s Six bowls, there weren’t enough left for every bowl with ties to the league.

“We know that Army is going to bring a large contingency because the Texas area is one of their hotbeds,” said Brant Ringler, the bowl’s executive director.

North Texas in Denton, of course, isn’t far from Dallas. Ringler said that was appealing as well.

“In the past couple years, you probably have noticed, the Conference USA championship has occurred, we received usually the champion or the runner-up, and it was probably going to look to be that way possibly this year as well,” Ringler said. “But when we had an opening in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl game that we also control, we did work out an agreement with Conference USA to have (runner-up Louisiana Tech) play in the Armed Forces Bowl. Therefore, it allowed us to be able to slide in the University of North Texas into the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which is a win-win for all of us all around.”