BOISE, Idaho (AP) It would have been hard to imagine two months ago that Saturday's matchup between Wyoming and Boise State would be a battle for second place in the conference.
Back in September, Boise State had high hopes and even higher expectations to go undefeated, win the title in its first - and maybe only - year in the Mountain West Conference and make another convincing run for a national title.
Then there was Wyoming, a team coming off a 3-9 season in 2010 and projected by coaches and sportswriters alike to again finish near the conference cellar.
What a difference two months can make. A crushing loss to TCU two weeks ago dashed the Broncos' hopes of snagging the conference crown and playing in a high-profile bowl game.
Meanwhile, Wyoming (7-3, 4-1) has quietly battled its way to the top of the conference. The Cowboys - thanks to a freshman quarterback and an opportunistic defense - have won two straight and four of five to put themselves in a tie for second with the Broncos.
"We were picked to be one of the worst in the league," said Cowboys coach Dave Christensen. "Now our kids understand that to be second in the league you have to beat Boise State.
"Now, are we excited about where we're going? Yes. But is this a make-or-break game for us? No. It's a huge game for us because we have goals to finish as high as we can in the conference. But we also understand that one game does not make or break your season," he said.
The Broncos (9-1, 4-1) and Cowboys meet in Boise on Saturday in just the sixth game ever between these two border states. The Cowboys have never beaten Boise State, and the most recent defeat came last season with a 51-6 rout in Laramie.
But this is a different Wyoming team. Based on their record, the Cowboys are the fourth-most improved team in the country, trailing Houston, Arkansas State and Louisiana in that category.
Part of that has to do with a defense that excels at forcing turnovers, especially in the red zone. The Cowboys have 26 takeaways this season overall - 17 fumbles and nine interceptions - and have forced at least four turnovers in each of the last two victories over Air Force and New Mexico.
With the offense doing its job protecting the ball, Wyoming has a turnover margin of 1.56, second-best in the nation.
"They're playing well and peaking at the right time," said Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore. "They're creating a lot of turnovers in games and I think that's had a really big impact on their year."
For Moore and the rest of the Boise State offense, the chief task will be playing keep-away. Moore has thrown just four picks all season, but Boise State ball carriers have coughed up the ball at critical moments. In their loss to TCU two weeks ago, backup running back Drew Wright was stripped late in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the Horned Frogs to mount a game-winning drive that ultimately crushed Boise State's national title hopes.
Last week, Boise State lost the ball twice, but the miscues proved less costly in a victory over San Diego State.
"We've had more turnovers than we'd like this year," said Moore. "It's always the same old story in games when it comes to turnovers. That's the big thing. Those things change games."
So has the play of Wyoming's freshman quarterback Brett Smith, who won the job in fall workouts and is just the third true freshman to start for Wyoming since 1974.
A threat with his legs and arm, Smith rushed for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns, and passed for 212 yards in beating New Mexico last week. The win made Wyoming bowl-eligible for the second time in three years with Christensen at the helm.
Smith's second rushing score was a 69-yarder, the longest offensive play of the season. Coming into the game, Smith trails only Moore in the Mountain West for total offense, averaging 274.4 yards.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen says the play of Smith, coupled with the key plays made by the Wyoming defense, makes last year's Broncos blowout early in the season irrelevant when it comes to preparing for Saturday's showdown.
"This year, they're just improved everywhere. The kids ... they believe they're going to win and they do win," said Petersen. "The best way to put it is they know how to fight and they know how to win."