Four undefeated Pac-10 teams are in the top 25. Two of them - Oregon and Stanford - square off in Eugene on Saturday in a game that many feel could ultimately decide the conference championship.
But Arizona already has knocked off one top-10 opponent (Iowa) and can't be counted out. And USC, which keeps finding ways to win without playing well, is always lurking. The Trojans want nothing more than to show they're still the class of the Pac-10 even though they're ineligible to win the conference championship.
Yet one of the most dangerous teams on the West Coast is unranked.
Don't be fooled by the losing record, as recent history shows Oregon State, despite its 1-2 start, can't be counted out in the league race. Coach Mike Riley's teams have a reputation for getting better as the season progresses.
In each of the past four seasons, the Beavers lost twice in September but rebounded to finish at least third in the final Pac-10 standings. In each of the past two seasons, they would have gone to the Rose Bowl with a victory over Oregon in the regular-season finale.
Oregon State hopes to continue that trend when it begins Pac-10 play Saturday against Arizona State.
"The only thing I try to stress with them is that you know from experience and your knowledge of the past that it can be done," Riley said. "But it is certainly not given to you by rite of passage. You have to earn it.
"Those teams improved. Those teams persevered because they recognized where they needed to go and what they needed to do better and they did, so our team got better. We've got a ton of things we've got to get better on. Nobody can make an assumption that because those teams did that this team is going to automatically be given passage to do it. We've got to prove it."
The Beavers definitely have areas in which improvement is needed. They are ranked 101st in the NCAA in rushing offense despite having Jacquizz Rodgers, who is among the nation's premier running backs.
They also are ranked 105th in rushing defense and 116th in sacks with just two. QB Ryan Katz is 91st in passing.
"We are not very productive right now," Riley said. "I hope that Ryan is on a fast learning curve."
The Beavers can glean some encouragement in other areas, though. They're the only team in the nation that hasn't committed a turnover. They're the second-least penalized team in the Pac-10. WR James Rodgers, who is expected to be sufficiently recovered from a concussion and able to play this weekend, is among the national leaders in all-purpose yardage, too.
But perhaps the greatest reason for optimism is Oregon State has been competitive in its two losses, to TCU and Boise State, both away from home.
"With that level of competition, you understand you have to have detailed execution in order to be successful, but we haven't done that yet," Riley said. "You learn about what it takes against good people and sound people. I think it should be a good lesson."
Only time will tell if the Beavers have learned that lesson. But Beavers opponents should have learned a lesson, too: A slow start is no reason to overlook Oregon State.
Best matchup: Stanford at Oregon. Oregon is the nation's highest-scoring team, averaging 57.8 points per game, and Stanford is fourth at 48.0. Both are allowing an average of less than 14 points per game, too. Stanford has a Heisman candidate in QB Andrew Luck. Oregon RB LaMichael James is a candidate, too. In fact, James is the nation's second-leading rusher with 475 yards in three games. Stanford has a solid rushing defense that hasn't allowed an opposing running back near 100 yards. The Cardinal defeated Oregon 51-42 a year ago, but this season, Stanford has to go to Eugene.
Player on the spot: Oregon State DT Stephen Paea. He has been trumpeted as an All-American candidate, but he hasn't played to that level this season. The Beavers have struggled against the run and showed an anemic pass rush. That's not necessarily all on Paea, but he needs be a dominant force and set the standard for the Beavers' defense, especially against Arizona State. The Sun Devils have had a 100-yard rusher in three of their four games and rolled up 210 yards on the ground against Oregon last week. If Oregon State is going to slow down Arizona State, Paea will have to lead the way.
Numbers game: Oregon coach Chip Kelly signed a six-year contract extension worth $20.6 million earlier this week. His base salary is $2.4 million this season and escalates to $4 million in 2014 and '15. Meanwhile, California's athletic department announced it would cut five sports in hopes of saving $4 million.
What they're saying
"I had 100 yards? It felt like 100 carries." -- Oregon RB LaMichael James, after grinding for 114 yards against Arizona State last week
"By far, he's our kicker. It's not even close." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on Giorgio Tavecchio, who missed two field goals, including a late 40-yard attempt in last week's 10-9 loss at Arizona
"The Pac-10 is very deep this year. People might be overlooking the fact we still have to play at Arizona State and at Washington and we still have Arizona coming here." -- Stanford LB Shayne Skov, pointing out this week's hyped-up game against Oregon won't guarantee a conference championship
Etc.: Arizona QB Nick Foles has completed passes to at least eight receivers in each game. … Arizona State freshman RB Deantre Lewis may be in line to break into the starting lineup after putting together back-to-back 100-yard games. … Cal freshman WR Keenan Allen has been hobbled by a sore ankle, but with an open week coming up, he's expected to be healthy for the Bears' Oct. 9 game against UCLA. Meanwhile, Bears WR Marvin Jones leads the Pac-10 with 25 receptions. … Oregon's LaMichael James has 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances in regular-season games. … The Ducks lead the nation with 18 turnovers forced. They've scored six non-offensive touchdowns (three via punt return, two on interceptions and a fumble return). … James Rodgers is Oregon State's career leader in all-purpose yards with 5,630. He totaled 100 all-purpose yards in last week's loss to Boise State to move ahead of Ken Simonton, who had 5,606. … Stanford is off to its best start since 1986 and is ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2001. … USC QB Matt Barkley leads the nation with 12 touchdown passes, but he also has thrown two interceptions in each of the past two games. … USC's defense has held opponents to fewer than 90 rushing yards in back-to-back games. … UCLA QB Kevin Prince sat out practice with a sore knee earlier this week, but an MRI exam revealed no damage. His status is uncertain for this week's game against Washington State. Bruins freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa has moved into the starting lineup at defensive end and Nate Chandler has shifted from end to tackle. … Washington LB Mason Foster leads the Pac-10 and is third in the nation with an average of 12.7 tackles per games. … Washington State WR Jared Karstetter has caught a pass in 19 consecutive games. … Oregon leads the nation with 18 turnovers forced. The Ducks also have scored six non-offensive touchdowns (three via punt return, two on interceptions and a fumble return). … Arizona State P Trevor Hankins leads the nation with a 51.1 average per punt. … Arizona has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. … UCLA has rushed for more than 260 yards in each of its past two games.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.