As one of five football games Saturday involving a pair of top 25 teams, that should be the prominent storyline for No. 14 Oregon State at No. 21 Washington State.
Instead, it’s the co-feature. Many will see Saturday’s game in Martin Stadium as the Left-Out Bowl. The Pac-2 Championship.
The end of an era.
Of late, Oregon State and Washington State are known as much for court appearances as they are football games. They’re the only schools among the Pac-12′s current makeup with an unsettled future beyond the 2023-24 school year, thanks to a flurry of conference realignment.
Is the next step for the Beavers and Cougars a move to the Group of 5′s Mountain West Conference? Rebuilding the Pac-X? Independent?
Oregon State and Washington State desperately want to remain in the Power 5 picture. WSU football coach Jake Dickert has been outspoken about the issue. After the Cougars beat Wisconsin 31-22 on Sept. 9, Dickert’s first comment to ESPN was “We belong in the Power 5.”
It’s not the first time Dickert went public with his realignment thoughts. A few days after Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah accepted invitations to play in other conferences, Dickert told reporters that “Washington State’s gonna thrive. … The Cougars are gonna make it. Cougs vs. everybody.”
Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith has been guarded with realignment comments. Smith shows support for the school and its plight, but hasn’t stumped for the future at Dickert’s level.
Asked Monday why he’s taken a lower-profile path, Smith said “We’re focused with the task at hand, what is right in front of us. I totally agree with Coach Dickert in regard that Oregon State and Washington State belonging and competing at the highest level.
“There’s a proven product, not just in football but in all sports. Both … have had serious success and that should continue.”
Oregon State’s long-term future won’t be on Smith’s mind this week. The short-term stakes are too important. Saturday isn’t about showing the nation that OSU and WSU deserve to compete in Power 5. It’s about two 3-0 teams trying to keep all their postseason options alive by winning the Pac-12 opener in Pullman.
“The meaning is game 1 of conference play, and you want to get off to a good start,” Smith said. “It’s going to be competitive over there and obviously, we’re trying to win the game. Those are the kinds of things I think about.”
Smith has learned a lot about his team through three games, but there’s more to uncover. Outside of few nervous moments during the fourth quarter against San Diego State, Oregon State has yet to encounter adversity this season. Playing in the country’s deepest conference this season – the Pac-12 has eight ranked teams – overcoming tough stretches figure to be a weekly encounter during Pac-12 play.
“I liked a lot after three games, but I’m curious to see if we can still stay in this constant state of improvement, week in and week out. There’s a long season ahead of us,” Smith said.
There won’t be an issue of overlooking Washington State. This Cougars’ 3-0 start aside, Pullman has been the site of heartbreak for many Beavers on the current roster. In 2019 and 2021, Oregon State lost close games during the final minute to the Cougars.
In 2019, Max Borghi scored a touchdown with two seconds left to lift Washington State to a 54-53 win. Two years ago, WSU prevailed 31-24 after the Beavers’ potential game-tying drive stalled inside the Cougars’ 10 with 33 seconds left.
The 2019 loss was particularly harsh, as it cost Oregon State a bowl berth. Smith said those losses should serve as motivational fuel as the Beavers prepare this week.
“I think it helps. They do carry it, and they recognize how tough it is to win up there,” Smith said.