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Welcome to the second season of College Football Overtime.
One might argue the past eight months have qualified as their own college football overtime, as the competition between various schools and conferences bled into an offseason dominated by realignment and other off-field drama. Many of us, understandably, can't wait to finally plop down in front of the TV or make our way to the stadium for some real, between-the-stripes football this weekend.
Of course, not all opening-week games are created equal. Around the same time North Carolina takes on LSU at the Georgia Dome on Saturday night, rival North Carolina State will be hosting Western Carolina, one of a staggering 37 Week 1 matchups between FBS and FCS opponents.
Oregon State was originally scheduled to be part of such a contest before ESPN approached AD Bob De Carolis late last year about signing on for a season-opening date with TCU at Cowboys Stadium. Mind you, the Horned Frogs were en route to a 12-1 season and top 10 ranking at the time, and the Beavers already had a trip to fellow top 10 foe Boise State on their 2010 docket as well as a home game with Louisville.
"To our athletic director's credit, he really tried to discourage me from [taking] the TCU game," said Beavers coach Mike Riley. "He just thought, with the fact that we're breaking in a new quarterback [sophomore Ryan Katz], it probably wasn't smart -- and it probably isn't. But I really like these games."
Bless you, Mike.
Year after year, Oregon State has been one of the few Top 25-level teams willing to leave its state to take on early-season challengers. The results haven't always been pretty. In 2004, the Beavers lost a slosh-filled heartbreaker at defending BCS champion LSU. Four years ago, they got creamed in a Thursday night game at Boise. Two years ago, Penn State dealt them a 45-14 smackdown in Happy Valley to start the year 0-2.
"After the Penn State game, [my wife] Dee was waiting for me," said Riley. "She said, 'Why did you agree to play this game?'"
The reason, as time bore out, was that early-season challenges paid off come conference play. The 2006 Beavers went on to win 10 games. Amid the rubble of that '08 Penn State game, a true freshman running back, Jacquizz Rodgers, quietly rushed for 99 yards. Two games later, he put up 186 in a Thursday-night upset of top-ranked USC and helped lead the Beavers to within a game of the Rose Bowl.
It's become Oregon State's M.O. -- slow starter, fast finisher. In each of the past two years, the Beavers have lost two games in September, and each time they wound up playing for the Pac-10 title in their season-ending Civil War game against Oregon, getting hammered in '08 before losing a 37-33 shootout last season.
Riley scheduled the TCU game in part to allow Rodgers, now a junior, and his brother, senior receiver James, a trip back to their native Texas, but also because he wants his team to get over the Pac-10 hump -- even if that means playing two of the nation's toughest non-BCS programs, both away from home, in the month of September.
"We'll either be tough, or we'll die," he said with a chuckle.
Either way, Riley's team could wind up being a central figure in some of this season's biggest storylines.
Ever since the preseason polls officially decreed Boise State a preseason top-five team, anticipation has mounted that much higher for the Broncos' season-opening showdown with Virginia Tech next Monday night. Both of last year's surprise Fiesta Bowl participants enter 2010 in unchartered territory, ranked high enough to seriously entertain national-title aspirations. As one of the toughest challenges on both of their schedules, Oregon State will have a say in that.
Meanwhile, with USC ineligible for the postseason and Oregon dealing with the loss of star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the path is ripe for the Beavers to make a run at the Pac-10 title. Since returning for his second stint in Corvallis in 2003, Riley has built up the one-time doormats into a consistent program that ranks second behind the Trojans in Pac-10 victories (25) over the past four seasons. But they've yet to put together that one transcendent season.
Between the dynamic Rodgers brothers (who combined for 4,290 all-purpose yards last season), an experienced offensive line and a veteran, blue-collar defense (led by potential All-America tackle Stephen Paea), Riley feels like he has the pieces to take the next step -- with one obvious glaring question mark: Katz. The strong-armed sophomore is physically impressive, but until he takes the field against the Horned Frogs' defense -- the top-ranked unit in the country last season -- there's no telling how he'll respond.
But that's precisely why Riley figures it's better to hit the ground running.
"I have faith that this team will get tougher [over the course of the season]," he said. "That's what we've done every year for four years, and I see no reason why that will change."
Riley's is a contrarian philosophy for sure, but also an unquestionably refreshing one. If only more of his colleagues followed it.
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