NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Three teams got a taste of what it's like to play for the Sun Belt Conference championship on the last day of the season in 2005.

And for the first time in the football conference's five years in existence, North Texas was not one of them.

"This league is very close,'' said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle, whose Ragin' Cajuns, 5-2 in the league last year, lost out in a three-way tiebreaker that decided who went to the New Orleans Bowl. "The league has gotten better. There's a lot more talent in this league than there was three or four years ago. There's not a lot of difference between the top and the bottom.''

The evidence from 2005 bears out Bustle's contention. North Texas, which had won the first four Sun Belt titles, fell all the way to a tie for last in the league. Yet all five of its conference losses were by a touchdown or less, and three of those losses were by three points.

"Our biggest problem was the fact that this league has improved greatly,'' Mean Green coach Darrell Dickey said. "We weren't as experienced as we've been in the past and able to handle the fact that the teams are more talented. Our league has been competitive every year, but I think from the public perception (last season) has probably given our league a lot more credibility.''

When it all shook out last year, Arkansas State became the second Sun Belt Conference team to win the league's automatic berth in the New Orleans Bowl. ULM also was part of the season-ending three-way tie for first place, but a season ending loss at Louisiana-Lafayette sank the Warhawks' bowl aspirations.

"We lost a couple of games that we felt like we shouldn't have lost, but when you're getting a program up to where it needs to go, there are going to be some hurdles,'' said ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie, who formerly coached at Navy. "It's vital that they have the taste of that championship. They know that every game, every week, they can't let up. They've got to find a way to win if they want to go to the New Orleans Bowl and win this football conference.''

The Cajuns enter this season as favorites because of experience.

Jerry Babb is returning for his fourth year as starting quarterback, while eight starters will be back on defense. Playing through a shoulder injury last season, Babb completed 60 percent of his passes for 859 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 400 yards and four touchdowns.

"It's been really nice to watch the program grow and be a part of that,'' Babb said. "Being picked number one has a lot to do with the way we finished up last year. Also, we have a lot of guys coming back. We've been taking small steps.''

Team capsules in predicted order of finish:

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE: Not only is Babb back, but also RB Tyrell Fenroy, who as a freshman set a single-season school record for rushing by a running back with 1,053 yards. He had five 100-yard games last season and 12 rushing touchdowns. ... DE Tony Hills (four sacks, two forced fumbles) returns to lead a unit that had 23 sacks last season.

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