CORVALLIS — While they're still underdogs, the Oregon State Beavers certainly have more reasons to be hopeful this season heading into Saturday's Civil War against rival Oregon.
The surprising No. 16 Beavers are not only buoyed by their own dramatic turnaround but also by the vulnerabilities No. 5 Oregon showed in last weekend's loss to Stanford.
No. 5 Oregon at No. 16 Oregon St.
Oregon State has already defied the odds by improving to 8-2 overall after going just 3-9 last season. After two years without a bowl game, the Beavers were bowl eligible early after a 6-0 start, their best since the 1907 season.
They've also overcome an injury to starting quarterback Sean Mannion, and now one to successful backup-turned-starter Cody Vaz.
It all gives Oregon State more reason to be hopeful this season against Oregon, after four straight losses in the series. While Oregon State coach Mike Riley often says that in the Civil War "anything can happen," the last two meetings were pretty much foregone conclusions.
Last season, the then-No. 9 Ducks beat the Beavers 49-21 in Eugene, clinching the Pac-12 North's spot in the inaugural conference championship game. The Ducks would go on to defeat UCLA for the league title before a 45-38 victory over Wisconsin for their first Rose Bowl win in 95 years.
The season before, Oregon beat Oregon State 37-20 in Corvallis. The win sent Oregon on to the BCS championship game against Auburn, while the loss kept the Beavers from becoming bowl eligible.
Oregon State hasn't won the Civil War since an overtime upset at Autzen Stadium in 2007.
"It's great to be where we are. We try not to be surprised by success, we work for that hard. But I am proud of the turnaround in this team and the work they did in the offseason and what they've accomplished to this point," Riley said. "It's much more fun and exciting to be going into the Civil War at 8-2 rather than 3-8, or whatever we were."
Oregon (10-1, 7-1) is wounded heading into the 116th edition of the rivalry game after a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford last Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
The loss knocked Oregon out of the top spot in the AP rankings and complicated the Ducks' bid for a second national championship game berth in three seasons.
Oregon would have clinched the Pac-12 North for the second straight season with a victory against the Cardinal. Instead, they'll have to wait a week to see how the conference shakes out.
If No. 11 Stanford (9-2, 7-1) can defeat No. 15 UCLA (9-2, 6-2) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, they'll go to the conference championship. If Stanford losses and Oregon wins, the Ducks will go.
The winner of the Pac-12 title game gets a Rose Bowl berth — unless the winner is tapped for a place in the national championship. The Bruins have already clinched the southern division.
Oregon is not out of the mix for the BCS title game just yet, but they'll need USC (7-4, 5-4) to defeat top-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame on Saturday. It's a tall order for the Trojans, who have lost three of their last four games and won't have senior quarterback Matt Barkley. Freshman Max Wittek will make his first career start in place of Barkley, who hurt his right shoulder in last weekend's 38-28 loss to the rival Bruins.
"There's a lot of disappointment, but it's one game," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said in the wake of the Stanford loss. "The season's not over. We have a lot to play for."
He's right. Even if Oregon doesn't play in the conference championship, they could be an at-large selection for one of the other BCS bowls, a scenario that seems likely if they defeat Oregon State and finish the season with just one loss.
Interestingly, Oregon State's season is also far from over. Win or lose to the Ducks, they've got a home game set for Dec. 1 against Nicholls State. The Beavers were supposed to open on Sept. 1 against the Colonels, but the game was postponed because of the threat Hurricane Isaac posed to the school's Thibodeaux, La., campus. Then Oregon State will await its bowl bid.
As of Tuesday, Oregon was a 91/2; -point favorite over Oregon State. Stanford coach David Shaw, who has defeated both Oregon and Oregon State this season, was asked on Tuesday for his assessment.
"Whatever defense can keep the offense from making the big plays will have a good chance to win," he said.