You can describe the season that Mike Riley and the Oregon State Beavers have strung together so far as magical. Some might say they've picked up some luck along the way. Others will maintain that the smoke will fade and the mirrors will shatter and all that's left is a good team -- but not a top-10 team, and certainly not a team worthy of inclusion in the national championship conversation.
But Riley doesn't believe in luck. Or smoke and mirrors. Or tip-toeing through raindrops. He believes in experience, preparation and, above all, hard work. That's why his team is 6-0 for the first time since 1907 -- when it was known as the Oregon Agricultural College -- and on the verge of starting 7-0 for the first time in school history.
And they've gotten there the hard way, with all six games going fairly deep into the fourth quarter before really knowing the outcome. That's kept his players salty, knowing that one or two plays separate them from perfection -- or from being just another team trying to find its way in a crowded Pac-12.
"This team appears to have found a pretty level-headed place in this wild world of football," Riley said. "There is obviously a lot going on around us with the rankings and a lot of pats on the back. But practices are good. They are focused. I think they have found a way up to this point to live in the moment."
But it's those tight games that also give this team an element of fragility. Consider Oregon -- its Civil War brethren -- and the way the Ducks have attained their perfect start. Dominant. Explosive. No room for questions. Oregon State, however, has had to grind a little more. If you're a glass-half-full Beaver fan, you say it builds character. If you're a skeptic, you say they've looked vulnerable.
Riley is a realist.
"As coaches, we're kind of paranoid about that other side dropping in on you," he said. "And I talk to them about it all the time. But really I've seen no signs of a letdown or complacency. They have probably learned through the games that this is all hard. We've gone well into the fourth quarter of all the games before they've been decided. We've had to earn them late in the game. I think they remember how hard it is.
"Our guys aren't surprised about having to play competitively and make big plays in the fourth quarter and crunch time, when you have to be a clutch player and make plays and be perfect. We were behind against Arizona and made a big-time drive with a lot of big plays. I think it's good for guys to be in that situation. As a coach, I'd rather be more comfortable, but it's probably good for guys to perform under that type of pressure."
And if the wins keep coming, the pressure will grow exponentially. The Beavers, ranked No. 7 this week in the BCS standings, travel to CenturyLink Field in Seattle this weekend to face Washington -- a team that has already knocked off one top-10 team. Then they host Arizona State and travel to Stanford before closing out the year against Cal, Oregon and Nicholls State (if necessary).
The combined record of Oregon State's first six opponents is 23-21. Nationally, people will point to the Wisconsin victory as the strongest, but anyone who follows the Pac-12 knows winning in Tucson is no easy task this year, nor is winning at UCLA or at BYU for that matter.
The remaining five FBS teams on OSU's schedule have a 23-13 mark -- highlighted by 7-0 Oregon.
So we know they can clutch-up in the fourth. And we know they can handle adversity. Not many teams could lose their starting quarterback for two weeks and go 2-0, including a road game against one of the top defenses in the country. What's motivating this team, however, isn't what they are doing this year. It's what they did last year when they were 3-9, one of the worst statistical teams in the conference, and their coach was talked about as being on the hot seat.
"I never talk about it," Riley. "I talk about the present. But I think that we have some good, strong individuals that played young last year and didn't like it. So they took it to heart and worked hard. The combination of some experience and development has been real good for this team. And yes, they probably are motivated by that because they didn't like 3-9 and they made a major league commitment and they aren't letting it die. They are going hard."