No. 24 Utah on top of Mountain West

Updated: October 24, 2003, 9:14 PM ET

SALT LAKE CITY -- As happy as Utah is to be back in the national rankings for the first time in seven years and alone on top of the Mountain West Conference standings, the No. 24 Utes would much rather be in the same position a month from now.

The rankings mean a lot more at the end of November than October.

"It's all on us and that's how we want it. We're responsible for it now. No excuses," Utah quarterback Alex Smith said.

The Utes (6-1, 2-0 Mountain West) host New Mexico (4-3, 1-1) on Saturday and are in position for their first outright conference championship since 1957. After the Lobos, Utah faces Air Force, Wyoming and state-rival Brigham Young. If the Utes win the rest of the way, nobody in the Mountain West can catch them.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a team that a year ago was in the midst of a five-game losing streak that grew to six with a heartbreaking loss at New Mexico. Utah blew a 28-21 lead, allowing a touchdown with 46 seconds remaining and lost to the Lobos 42-35 in double overtime.

"You think back to most games and they seem like yesterday. But that game just seems like a long time ago. It's just hard to think we got beat by New Mexico that bad," Utah strong safety Dave Revill said. "It kind of showed how our mentality was. We weren't there. We weren't all focused and it played against us."

The Utes won the rest of their games, but still finished 5-6. Coach Ron McBride was fired and in came Urban Meyer, who had turned Bowling Green around in just two seasons there. Meyer said in August he felt preseason picks that had the Utes finishing fifth in the Mountain West were selling the team short, but maybe not by this much.

Instead of the middle of the pack, the Utes could win their first outright league title since taking the Skyline Conference in 1957.

"Yeah, I would say it's a surprise," Meyer said.

Utah hasn't opened a season 7-1 since 1996, which was also the last time the Utes were in the Associated Press poll. Utah climbed as high as No. 20 before losing at Rice 51-10 and hasn't been ranked since.

"This team deserves it," Smith said. "But then again, we have to realize it puts a big target on us, alone in the Mountain West, ranked nationally. Teams are going to be up to play us and we have to get ready for that."

Since winning five straight in the series, the Utes have lost two of their last three to the Lobos. Brett Elliott's 440 passing yards and four touchdowns weren't enough for Utah, which lost after the last-minute defensive collapse.

Elliott has been replaced by Smith, who's running Meyer's spread offense near perfection. He's completed 97 of 38 passes for 1,197 yards and has not thrown an interception all season.

New Mexico coach Rocky Long said the Utes are a completely different team than they were a year ago.

"Their program is much more stable and right now they're on a roll," Long said. "They want to run the ball first and throw it second. They do it by trying to outnumber you. They spread the receivers out and if you go out and cover them, they hand it to the running back."

New Mexico could force a big pileup in the league standings with a win Saturday. New Mexico is one of four Mountain West teams entering Saturday with just one conference loss. The Lobos' defense has helped New Mexico recover from a three-game losing streak by winning three in a row.

The Lobos have forced 14 turnovers in the last three games.

"I think we're making better plays when the opportunity arises," he said. "We had opportunities to get turnovers in the game before and we didn't make the plays."

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