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Updated: August 21, 2003, 5:27 PM ET

LITTLE ROCK -- Harding rolled through its first six games in 2002, building hopes for a Gulf South Conference title.

The Bisons didn't have conference heavyweights Valdosta State or Central Arkansas on its schedule and among its final five games, only Southern Arkansas had a winning record.

Henderson State, 2-4 at the time, gave the Bisons' their first loss and then the week before playing Southern Arkansas an improving Delta State team hung 49 points on Harding.

The Bisons closed the season with two wins to finish 9-2, but losing to Delta State ended all playoff hopes.

"I think anybody in this league other than Valdosta would be happy with nine wins," Harding coach Randy Tribble said. "We were really disappointed at the end. The Delta State loss just ripped our heart out."

The Bisons have another shot at the same conference schedule, eluding NCAA Division II championship finalist Valdosta State and UCA. They enter the schedule packed with returning skill position players, experienced linebackers and 14 starters overall.

The only real concern for Tribble is overconfidence.

"I'm going to make sure everybody knows that if they think there's a gimme on this schedule then it could get ugly," he said. "Somebody pretty good could hit a slump and wind up 3-7."

Senior quarterback Freddie Langston passed for 2,275 yards and 20 touchdowns in his third year as a starter and he has a chance to own every passing record in school history.

He has two talented receivers in Santiago Collins and DeMarcus Calhoun, who picked up the slack last year with 55 receptions for 754 yards and seven touchdown when Collins tore knee ligaments.

"I wish we could have been more like a tandem, but everything happens for a reason," said Collins, who caught 34 passes last year after making 73 in 2001. "I went down and he excelled. Now, we've got an offense where you can't cover either one of us man-to-man."

Right guard Justin Beller anchors an offensive line that replaces three starters. The line will be clearing the way for sophomore running backs Dondtray Thomas and DeJuan Patton, who each rushed for 500 yards as freshmen.

Middle linebacker Tim Polk made 98 tackles and he leads seven starters on a unit that lost three all-conference linemen. Floyd Black and Tim Love were first-team members, while Jaime Doyle was a second-team selection.

Vernon Shotwell (6-2, 301) takes over at noseguard, while Philip King and several other backups from last year will fill the three-man line.

"We're going to play six or seven guys in the rotation and we're going to be faster there," Tribble said.

Harding opens the season at 7 p.m. on Sept. 6 at East Central Oklahoma.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index