In the early days of the Mountain West Conference, Colorado State ruled the roost in football. From 1999-2002, the Rams won a share of three league championships, including two outright titles.
Head coach Sonny Lubick guided Colorado State to a total of 38 victories and four consecutive bowl appearances over those four seasons. After the last league title in 2002, though, the program fell upon hard times.
The Rams went 7-6 in 2003 before ending the Lubick era with four consecutive finishes without a winning record, going 18-29 overall in the process.
A coaching change followed, with Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, a former CSU player and assistant coach, being hired to replace Lubick.
In his first season at the helm, Fairchild brought a key component back to the program — winning. The Rams went 7-6 last season, finishing things off with a 40-35 win over Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
"Sonny did a great job. There's nothing that Sonny Lubick did that was not positive," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Sometimes there's just a spark that can be generated by a coaching change. I think coach Fairchild had that spark."
It carried over to this season. Before back-to-back losses at BYU (42-23) and Idaho (31-29), the Rams opened the season with victories over Colorado (23-17), Weber State (24-23) and Nevada (35-20).
Whittingham, whose squad opens MWC play at CSU on Saturday, describes the Rams as a "hard-nosed, physical football team." They have an experienced offensive line, a quarterback who's doing a nice job, and a much-improved defense with more size and athleticism than a year ago.
"Colorado State is a good football team, and Fort Collins has proven to be a very difficult place to play," Whittingham said. "The Rams are coming off a tough loss to a much-improved Idaho team. But we have no doubt that they will regroup and be ready to play on Saturday."
Fairchild acknowledges that last week's loss at Idaho was disappointing. He felt his team made too many errors in every phase of the game.
"There is tremendous talent on our football team, and we just have to put it together," Fairchild wrote in his fan blog. "We can't wait around. We have to do it."
There's a sense of urgency now, with games against projected title contenders Utah and TCU over back-to-back weeks.
Quarterback Grant Stucker leads the Rams' charge offensively. He ranks among the league leaders in passing efficiency, passing yards and total offense.
Defensive back Elijah-Blu Smith is tied for the MWC lead in interceptions, and linebacker Alex Williams is No. 1 in both fumble recoveries and forced fumbles.
On special teams, Don Morton tops the conference in kickoff returns, averaging 26.5 yards.
Utes on the air
Utah (3-1, 0-0) at Colorado State (3-2, 0-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AM