While many teams around the Sun Belt don't start conference play for at least three weeks, the conference season actually starts this week.

Thursday, in fact.

First year head coach Dan McCarney leads the North Texas Mean Green into Miami to face defending co-champion FIU this Thursday night.  It is the only conference game in the nation in week one of the college football season until Monday night when Miami meets Maryland.

Western Kentucky also opens Thursday night, taking on the Kentucky Wildcats.  That game is on ESPNU.  UNT and FIU are playing on ESPN3.com.

Normally I'd wait until week four or so to do this, but with a conference game this week, here's how I think the Sun Belt race will unfold this year.

1.  TROY--Yeah, I know, FIU is the pick among most of the preseason magazines and in among the league's coaches as well.  But, despite having to travel to Miami and Jonesboro, I'm picking the Trojans.  They don't play a conference game on the road until they travel to Louisiana on Oct. 8.  They'll be ready for their first conference game against Middle Tennessee.  By the time they play at FIU on Oct. 25th, their questions at wide receiver will be answered.  And the Trojans will be looking for redemption after losing to FIU at home last year.

2. FIU--Probably the league's best defensive team. And, they have the league's most electrifying player in T. Y. Hilton.  Their offense is capable, although not spectacular.   But they have to travel to both ULM and Arkansas State, and as I said above, I think Troy is looking for payback when the Trojans go to Miami.  The schedule just doesn't do them any favors.

3.  ARKANSAS STATE--I love their offense.  They've had some losses on the line, but Ryan Aplin (with apologies to the others) is the league's best quarterback.  He's got guys who can catch it.  ASU needs to run the ball better to finish in the top three, and they certainly must play better defense than they did a year ago.  They get both Troy and FIU in Jonesboro.  I have a feeling these guys are going to be a lot better than people think.  But there's one caveat:  Aplin had better stay healthy.  Capable backup Phillip Butterfield has been lost for the season.  If Aplin goes down, so do the Red Wolves.

4. LOUISIANA-MONROE--These guys were really young last year, yet were playing for bowl eligibility in the final week.  And, with the most starters returning in the league, lots of folks are saying this could be the year the Warhawks break through.  They have to go to Troy, but get Arkansas State, FIU and Middle Tennessee all at home.  In order to finish higher, ULM has to fight tradition.  Seventeen years in the FBS.  No winning seasons.  ULM has had their opportunities the last few seasons but manage to lose games they really should win.  Can't pick them any higher til they show they can do that.

5.  MIDDLE TENNESSEE--It's pretty amazing the Blue Raiders got to a bowl last year, considering their turnover margin was the worst in America.  Now their replacing their starting quarterback, starting tailback and most of their defense.  Yet the Raiders will probably do a better job of valuing possession of the football, which will make up for some of those losses.  They get FIU and Arkansas State at home.

6.  LOUISIANA--Most don't have the Cajuns picked this high and maybe I shouldn't either.  But I am one of those who believe Mark Hudspeth will probably make the Cajuns better than people think.  I'm not, however, going to be stupid about it.  This team has no experienced depth on the offensive line, they have defensive backs playing linebacker and while the secondary is good, there's no experienced depth there, either.  But, if, and it's a big if, the offensive line can stay intact, this will be a good offensive football team.  They've got weapons.  But make no mistake, if they have injuries where they don't have depth, they're in deep trouble.  They have to go to FIU and Arkansas State, but get ULM and Troy at home.

7.  WKU--I actually want to pick them higher, but I'm not going to.  I really think this will be the league's most improved team.  But the record may not reflect that.  If Ka'Juan Jakes develops consistency as a passer, WKU could be really good on offense.  Bobby Rainey is a workhorse at running back.  Where WKU must get better in order to be better is on the defensive side of the football.  Willie Taggart has had two great recruiting classes on the Hill.  He probably needs one more in order for the 'Toppers to make their move.

8.  NORTH TEXAS--Many believe the Mean Green will be the most improved team in the league.  Obviously, with this pick I'm saying I'm not buying it.  They have no experience at wide receiver, little experience at quarterback and their defense has been godawful for years.  Dan McCarney has been at the Big Six level most of his coaching career.  Hope he can coach without a ton of talent, because, outside of the outstanding Lance Dunbar, this team doesn't have a lot.

9.  FLORIDA ATLANTIC--Coach Howard Schnellenberger's last go round won't be an easy one.  He's breaking in a new quarterback who doesn't have much to throw to.  Alfred Morris will run behind an experienced line, but FAU will have a tough time being multi-dimensional.  Add to that some big losses on defense, and this could be a real struggle for the Owls this season. Add to that, they play their first five on the road this year.....ouch!