How close was the Louisiana-Monroe football team from making history last year? Try one loss to Florida International in double overtime and one to Louisiana-Lafayette on a blocked extra point.

Had the Warhawks finished on the right side of both nail-biters, they would have earned a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship and played in their first bowl game.

“We definitely came close in two games I thought we should have won,” quarterback Kolton Browning said, “but we can’t sit here and dwell on last year. We have to look forward.”

Looking forward has never been easier for a team that returns 19 starters, including all 11 on offense.

When the Sun Belt released its preseason poll, ULM was picked along with Middle Tennessee to finish third. Also, the Warhawks had four players picked on the preseason all-conference team.

“I think what we saw in the spring and with just the natural growth rate of our players, there’s just an awful lot of reasons to be very positive about this team,” ULM coach Todd Berry said. “I think our expectations are high, and I think they rightfully should be.”

Berry, tapped as Charlie Weatherbie’s replacement after the 2009 season, created a buzz on Bayou DeSiard as the Warhawks got to the brink of bowl eligibility in his first year.

Loaded with youth, ULM finished 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the conference.

The highlight came in a 28-14 victory over eventual New Orleans Bowl champion Troy on homecoming weekend.

The Warhawks look to take the next step behind Browning’s arm and legs on offense and a defense that held opponents to a Sun Belt-best 159.1 rushing yards last year.

The spring before beginning his first season at ULM, Berry threw fans a curveball when he named Browning his starter ahead of incumbent Trey Revell, who was returning for his senior season.

It worked.

Browning accumulated 2,937 yards passing and rushing as a redshirt freshman and led the Sun Belt with a 61.9 percent completion percentage. He had a stretch of eight straight games throwing for more than 200 yards.

Other assets on offense include wide receiver Luther Ambrose, an All-American sprinter in track.

On defense, former Amite standout Jason Edwards returns at linebacker after leading ULM with 75 tackles last year. Ken Dorsey gives the defense some push up front and Darius Prelow anchors the secondary.

“With most everybody coming back, I think everybody’s grown closer. And we’ve gotten a lot stronger and faster,” Browning said.

As usual, ULM will be tested by its non-conference schedule.

But once the Warhawks get through early season trips to Florida State, TCU and Iowa, they can turn all their attention to the eight games they play that matter most. They can put last year’s close calls behind and start their Sun Belt chase anew.

“We came up short last year and were disappointed in ourselves,” Browning said. “I think everybody’s just ready to get back out there and play it one week at a time. We’re shooting to be crowned champs, but you’ve got to win it one game at a time.”