No. 23 Colorado St. off to best start since '94

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Colorado State's rise to national prominence is a little bit sudden for coach Jim McElwain.

After all, he's not quite done teaching the 23rd-ranked Rams the finer points of dressing for success yet, with players still coming up to him and his staff in their suits to fix their crooked ties.

On the field, though, the Rams are looking quite stylish as they've taken their place among football's high society. At 9-1, they're off to their best start since 1994 and back in the polls for the first time since CSU legend Sonny Lubick - whose name adorns the stadium - was running the show.

''We're probably there a little early in the maturation of the organization,'' McElwain said at his news conference Monday in Fort Collins, Colorado. ''We have a long ways to go.

''And yet, it's very satisfying to see what these guys have put in to get there.''

When McElwain came on board on Dec. 13, 2011, his task was arduous: Turn around a once-proud program coming off a third straight 3-9 season. He arrived with grand visions, especially after helping Alabama win two national titles as the offensive coordinator.

But he knew it would take some time in Fort Collins.

That first season, Colorado State went 4-8. But things began to take root in year No. 2, with a loss at Alabama of all places. The Rams kept up with the Crimson Tide into the fourth quarter on that Sept. 21, 2013, afternoon, before falling, 31-6.

''Holding our own against the No. 1 team in the nation at the time, that built confidence,'' offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo said. ''We believed that we could compete with anybody.''

They earned their first postseason appearance last season since 2008, beating Washington State 48-45 in the New Mexico Bowl.

This season, the Rams (5-1 Mountain West) are rolling, their only blemish a 37-24 loss at Boise State on Sept. 6.

That loss now looms large, though, since the Broncos (7-2, 4-1) are in the driver's seat in the Mountain Division. The Rams need Boise State to stumble in one of its remaining three games to have a shot at making the conference championship game on Dec. 6.

''We could've been (10-0) right now,'' said Rashard Higgins, who leads the nation in yards receiving (1,280) and TDs (13) despite sitting out last weekend's win over Hawaii with a shoulder injury. ''A minor setback before a major comeback. We lost a game, but that's probably what it takes to win the next few. It's all happened for a reason.

''This success is nothing to be surprised at. This is what we asked for and what we practiced hard for.''

At the same time this run puts Colorado State back on the football landscape, it brings more attention to McElwain and possibly makes him a hot commodity in the offseason.

All part of the business when you're not in a power-five conference.

''That's good for him to get that kind of attention,'' Sambrailo said. ''He's a great coach. It's easy to play for someone that motivates you and kind of gets you excited about coming to work every day.

''This program is returning to prominence and we will be successful from here on out.''

Part of the reason for the turnaround is that McElwain harps on the details away from football. He keeps on them about schoolwork, makes them tuck in their shirts and remove their hats when they come inside for a meeting.

Oh, and learn how to properly tie a tie, which they are required to wear on plane rides and bus trips.

''Little details - a reminder to take care of a lot of (little) things,'' McElwain said. ''The attention to the detail in everything you do.''

The message is seeping in, too.

''All this, it's not really that big of news to us,'' Sambrailo said. ''It's hard to explain to people outside the program. But we've been working toward this for a while now.''

After a week off, the Rams close out the season by playing New Mexico and then Air Force - two teams that rely heavily on the option. The Rams have been preparing for that brand of football one day a week all season, just to be ready.

''It's very satisfying (to be ranked),'' McElwain said. ''And yet, it can be very fleeting as well if we don't take care of our own business.''