The 2003 Sun Belt Conference race was only really a two-team sprint between North Texas and New Mexico State. The deciding game was the next-to-last game for both teams. The Aggies had to travel to Denton, TX where they lost a close eleven-point decision to the Eagles. NMSU gave themselves a chance to tie the Eagles atop the standings by beating Idaho on the road the last weekend of the season, but North Texas secured the division title by knocking off Middle Tennessee that same weekend. Those same two teams should again be two of the main competitors in the Sun Belt this season, but after a down season in 2002, I expect the Blue Raiders to come back this season and perform well.
North Texas, however, is the class of the Sun Belt and should capture the title for the third straight season. After appearing in the 2001 New Orleans Bowl but falling to Colorado State, North Texas picked up a five-point win over Cincinnati in the same bowl last year. The Eagles have only four starters returning on offense, but eight return on defense, including DL Brandon Kennedy, an All-America candidate who is expected to be one of the top defensive linemen taken in next year's NFL Draft. Non-conference games at Oklahoma, Air Force, and Arkansas won't be easy to win, but a home game with Baylor on September 6th is a game all NT fans should look forward to. It's a chance to beat not only a team from a big conference, but an in-state rival as well. The Bears haven't been good recently, but there is excitement in Waco thanks to the arrival of new head coach Guy Morriss. The Eagles could put a damper on that party early in the season if they can pick up the win. Unfortunately for North Texas, their two toughest competitors in the Sun Belt will have to be tackled on the road as trips to Murfreesboro and Las Cruces are on the schedule. The rest of the conference schedule should all be W's in the Eagles' schedule.
Middle Tennessee will have to replace talented but injury-prone all-conference RB Dwone Hicks this season after a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2002. Five offensive and eight defensive starters return this season to face a killer non-conference schedule that includes trips to Georgia, Clemson, and Missouri back-to-back-to-back. Both New Mexico State and North Texas come to MTSU this season which bodes well for the Raiders. Thanks to that kind conference slate, Middle Tennessee should find themselves near the top of the Sun Belt standings.
New Mexico State came up just one game short of the title and a bowl game appearance last season. Thirteen starters return this season, six on offense and seven on defense. NMSU must travel to Texas, Oregon State, and Arkansas before the season is over which makes for a tough out-of-conference schedule. A road stretch in the middle of the season that includes trips to Middle Tennessee, LA-Lafayette, and LA-Monroe will be a defining point in the Aggies' season. If they are still in the race at that point, the race to the finish may not end until the last weekend of the season when New Mexico State travels to Denton to take on the Eagles.
Arkansas State was a near-.500 6-7 last season, and a total of fourteen starters return to this year's club. The non-conference schedule will again be almost impossible with trips to Texas A&M, Memphis, and Mississippi all scheduled in the first half of the season. Although they probably won't challenge for the league championship, the Indians could again near .500 with a little luck in conference play and by winning the non-conference games they should.
The same could also be said for both Idaho and LA-Monroe. The Vandals return 6 offensive and 7 defensive starters from a horrendous season last year in which they finished 2-10 overall. ULM finished 3-9 in 2002 and returns 16 total starters, eight on each side of the ball. The Indians face three SEC teams on the road this season: LSU, Mississippi, and Auburn.
Louisiana-Lafayette also finished with a 3-9 record in '02, but only eleven starters return this fall. The Ragin' Cajuns face one team each from the SEC (South Carolina), Big Ten (Minnesota), and Big XII (Oklahoma State), all on the road, as well as two games against CUSA teams: vs Houston and at Southern Miss.
Utah State ended the 2002 season with a 4-2 record and returns four offensive and seven defensive starters. USU starts off the season with three tough road games: at Utah, at Nebraska, and at Arizona State.