It has been a crazy football season for the Oregon State Beavers. Mike Riley's team has experienced dizzying ups and downs and twists and turns, most recently, a dreadful loss against Washington that wrecked their undefeated season. That loss is, however, the only loss, stunningly, of the current campaign. The Beavers are the 11th ranked team in the land, fighting for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series and a program defining year. One hiccup from the Beavers, that fitful night in Seattle, hasn't sunk the BCS ship. Two losses and the Beavers have a chance to stay afloat. Three losses is checkmate on BCS dreams. It's that simple. Not making a BCS game would be short of a catastrophe, but a definite shame in this rebound season. The chance to make the Rose Bowl, or a Fiesta Bowl, it doesn't come around often. It's been a wild ride so far in 2012. But from the craziness, we meet opportunity, and Oregon State needs to seize the moment.
It's certainly has been quite the football season in Corvallis. The season opener nobody was going to care about against Nichols State turned into a high-stakes drama when storms in the south made it impractical and impossible for Nichols State to fly out to Oregon to play the game. The Beavers viewed it as a missed chance to start the season out of the right foot before the shellacking that never was against Wisconsin. Last year's B1G champions, a team that fell a few yards short of victory in the Rose Bowl was supposed to smash the Beavers. But Oregon State, behind a fantastic defense, stole the day with an unexpected 10-7 win. That got the ball rolling. The offense took off in the next two games, road wins over UCLA and Arizona, and while the Beavers, and more specifically Sean Mannion, struggled in a win over Washington State, OSU was at 4-0.
Then it was discovered that Mannion injured his knee against the Cougars and needed surgery that would rule him out of the game in Provo against BYU. Oregon State were underdogs in that game too, but a staunch defense and a surprisingly effective performance from Cody Vaz carried the day … and carried the Beavers past underperforming Utah the next week. 6-0.
Stop. Take a good long look at this picture: Your football team is 6-0. The team is rolling along, against the odds. The backup quarterback has just led you to two solid, in one case, impressive victories. Your starting quarterback is nursing himself back to full fitness, but might not be there yet and besides, the #1 guy hasn't played in two weeks. The last time he took the field was a torrid performance in which you struggled to beat an extremely poor, infighting, dysfunctional team. What do you do? Who starts at quarterback?
Mike Riley, great as he is, made the wrong choice, and the cost of that choice cannot be overstated. Sean Mannion played, played disastrously, and the Beavers lost to a bad team they had no business losing to. The fact that Mannion was benched before the last series of the game suggested that Riley wasn't fully committed to him in the first place and playing a struggling, hurt quarterback who you know in your heart of hearts might not be the right guy is a recipe for a loss. That's what happened. Vaz started last week against Arizona State, played well, and the Beavers won another close game. You have to ask yourself: What could have been?
I understand that the Beavers’ goal wasn't to play for the national championship, and so one loss didn't really change anything. There are a lot of people that will tell you the game against Washington was an inevitable bump in the road - but it doesn't matter. Those people are wrong. Forget that the Beavers had a chance to stay in the national title hunt. This is a BCS hunt, and the Beavers could afford a loss … but not that loss. Washington is languishing at 5-4 - mediocrity defined, on both sides of the ball. The Huskies are the seventh, most likely eighth best team in the conference. The Beavers could afford to lose, but not to the eighth best team in the conference. OSU now has to face Stanford and Oregon in the final three weeks of the regular season. Losing to Washington means the Beavers need to win at least one of those games. Three losses sinks the ship. If Oregon State came in undefeated, they would have had a big margin of error against the Cardinal and Ducks … two games that they will be big underdogs in. Thanks to that Mannion decision, the Beavers’ backs are against the BCS wall when they didn't have to be.
It is frustrating, no doubt, that the loss to Washington, if you're a Beavers’ fan, stings. But it's time to move on. If you offered any Beavers, fan, player, coach, the mascot, the cheerleaders, the professors, if you asked anyone if they'd take 7-1 going into the last four games of the season, they'd take it and kill you to make sure you didn't take your sweetheart offer back. Oregon State still controls its own destiny in the Pac-12 North for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Beavs still control their own destiny to make the Rose Bowl, and if the Beavs do fall to the Ducks, they should be rooting like crazy for Oregon to make the national championship game.
The Oregon State Beavers are the upset story of the 2012 college football season. Finishing the job, and capitalizing on the opportunity of a BCS bowl game - payout in excess of $17 million dollars - would be massive for the university, and the exposure would be massive for the program. A big bowl appearance would kickoff that rebranding that will take place before next year, and could help put the Beavers in a different league of college football. First, there's business to get to, including whether the Beavs should play the game against Nichols State rescheduled for early December, which I wrote about almost three weeks ago. Of course, if Oregon State makes the Pac-12 Championship game, they'll have no choice but to hastily cancel it; the title game is one day before the scheduled Nichols St. game, not to mention it would be an anticlimactic and potentially dangerous, injuries and wear and tear wise, game to play before a huge bowl game.
Cards are on the table. Big moments, program defining moments, await the orange and black in the next month. Against Washington, they Beavers failed. Fail again here, and this season is a nice one, but it doesn't go down as one of the great seasons in the history of the school. Fail to make a BCS game, and this season is just another one to go in the books. Succeed in making a Rose Bowl by beating Oregon, or not losing more than one game the rest of the way, and this season lives in glory. Mike Riley won't have many more chances to build his legend. Oregon State doesn't get many chances like this year to build the program. From the craziness of 2012, opportunity has been born. The Beavers must take advantage.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports