It seems every year there is a team that comes out of nowhere and surprises in conference. They might not bulldoze their way to a championship - but they make enough noise to turn a few heads on their way to a bowl berth and successful season.
Generally these are teams that had, for whatever reason, hit the skids over the years. Often their success only proves to be an anomaly. Other times it's lasting.
A quick look back at those surprises recently after the jump:
2003 - Utah Utes
The Utes were picked to finish, by most publications, fifth. In fact, CNNSI, Street & Smith, along with Lyndy's, picked Utah seventh out of eighth that year. The Utes actually won the Mountain West outright and finished ranked in the top-25. That break out performance in 2003 laid the foundation for 2004 and the rest is history.
2004 - Wyoming Cowboys
Since the Mountain West had formed, the Cowboys consistently found themselves toiling at the bottom of the conference. Entering 2004, the consensus put Wyoming dead last in the conference. That prediction was woefully wrong as Joe Glenn, in his second season, led the Cowboys to a 7-5 season with a Las Vegas Bowl win over UCLA. It had been the program's first bowl win in a generation.
2005 - TCU Horned Frogs
The Frogs had been one of the most consistent programs in the Conference USA under Dennis Franchione and Gary Patterson. However, in 2004 they struggled, finishing 5-6 in their final season in that conference.The move to the Mountain West was not supposed to yield immediate results - as TCU was picked to finish toward the middle of the pack. After stunning Oklahoma to start the season, though, the Frogs rolled through the Mountain West and claimed the title in their inaugural season. TCU hasn't looked back since.
2006 - BYU Cougars
BYU really came out of nowhere in 2006 to claim an outright title and damn near perfect season in 2006. Since then, the Cougars have been the most consistent team in the Mountain West.
2007 - Air Force Falcons
If the Fisher DeBerry era ended with a whimper in Colorado Springs, the Troy Calhoun era entered with a huge bang. Not expected to do much out of the gate, Air Force shocked the entire conference on their way to nine wins and a second place finish. It was the Falcons' first nine-win season in seven years and Calhoun has had no trouble keeping that consistency going - as Air Force has finished 8-5 the last two years.
2008 - Colorado St. Rams
Here's another case of a first-year head coach taking a struggling team to decent heights. Colorado State wasn't expected to be much of a factor in the Mountain West in 2008 and they really weren't. However, they did manage a winning season and bowl victory over Fresno. Not a bad inaugural season for Steve Fairchild. Too bad he couldn't keep the momentum rolling in 2009.
2009 - Wyoming Cowboys
They're back! The Cowboys make this list a second time and hope they at least have some staying power. After 2004's surprise season, Wyoming tanked and it led to a new coaching hire. Out went Joe Glenn for Dave Christensen. He, like Fairchild, overtook a slumping program and managed to win seven games and defeat Fresno in the New Mexico Bowl. Now if only he could build on that success.
2010 - ?
So now we enter 2010. Who'll surprise? Well generally a team that surprises is one that no one is picking to finish anywhere near respectability. So that takes out TCU, Utah, BYU, Air Force and Wyoming. Left are: San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico.
The Aztecs always appear to be the team that should surprise - though they never do.
Colorado State could have a 2008-like season again.
UNLV is probably a year or two away from bowl contention.
And New Mexico might be a decade or two from winning more than two games (I keed).
Who will it be? My bet is San Diego State.
But it feels like I say that every year.