When Mike Riley and his Oregon State Beavers woke up on Aug. 31, they were ranked No. 25 in the country, poised for a big start and brimming with confidence.
By the time Sept. 1 rolled around, Oregon State's reputation was red wine on white carpet.
Not just a loss, but a loss to an FCS team. At home. The Beavers were etched in history as third ranked team to ever fall to an FCS outfit, joining the unpopular fraternity with Virginia Tech (James Madison, 2010) and Michigan (Appalachian State, 2007).
Then Riley and his staff dug in.
"I said to the staff, 'All the stuff you ever wanted in coaching is right here in front of us. All the challenges are there.' I've got a veteran staff," Riley explained. "I appreciate this group. Everybody went back to work. We've slowly gotten better and won some games in a row due to the fact that our kids and our coaches went back to work and kept our composure, and nobody panicked and started blaming a bunch of different stuff. Through that, we've gotten better, which has been fun to see."
The Beavers (5-1, 3-0) have run off five straight and enter Saturday night's game at California playing confident football. The kind you'd expect from a team aching to get back in the national rankings. And the rest of the country has recognized it. For the first time since the preseason poll, the Beavers are picking up votes in the AP top 25 and coaches polls. There are still five teams ahead of them receiving votes, including Utah, a team the Beavers beat in Salt Lake City in overtime.
"If you could take a silver lining from anything, that was a good example of the world that we live in, that if you are not ready to play and you don't play well, you're not going to win," Riley said. "The competition is too good. They all have good players. They are all very, very capable. And if you aren't ready and/or don't play well, you're not going to win. That was a great punch in the nose reminding everyone of that."
Cue the Bears (1-5, 0-3), who are trying to avoid their first 0-4 start in conference play since 2001. And they haven't had much success of late against the Beavers, who have won 11 of the last 14 meetings -- including the last five meetings in Berkeley.
It's been the perfect storm of frustration for Cal. A new coach and new systems on both sides of the ball, a young team, a horrible plague of injuries combined with a brutal schedule have all contributed to the unimpressive start. The Bears already have faced four ranked opponents in six games, and the five teams that have beaten Cal this year (Oregon, Ohio State, Northwestern, UCLA, Washington State) have a combined record of 25-4.
"The schedule didn't set up great for us early with a young football team," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "The number of injuries have been something I've never seen. You can go back and look at multiple years at a school and not suffer the kind of season-ending injuries we've had here. Injuries happen. It's part of the game. But we've had so many season-ending injuries to players that had experience.
"But our job is to coach the guys we have and get them ready to play and improve them, and we have to do a better job of doing that. Our kids are playing hard, and I see a lot of signs, but I want to start to see some results on Saturday like everybody else does."
Expect plenty of passing. Oregon State boasts the No. 1 passing offense in the Pac-12. Cal is No. 2. Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion leads the FBS in both passing yards (2,511) and touchdown passes (25). He's on pace to reach 50 touchdowns -- something only four quarterbacks in FBS history have done before.
Cal has managed to move the ball. It averages 483 yards and 26 first downs per game. But yards don't equal points, and scoring has been an issue for the Bears, who rank last in the league at 24.8 points per game.
"I think our kids are working very hard, and I think they are doing the stuff off the field that allows you to build a program the right way," Dykes said. "I'm seeing progress in that regard. The difficult thing about changing a culture or building a program, the last thing you see is the wins coming on Saturday. We're all frustrated in the fact that we haven't played very well. But I think our players realize there is a culture change going on. They are excited about it. They are the ones driving it. We feel like it's going to benefit us in the long run."