Pac-12 full of surprises so far
Oregon State was coming off two losing seasons and there wasn't much hope outside the program that it would get any better this year.
The Beavers entered the season picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North and there were rumblings that affable coach Mike Riley's job could be on the line if things didn't turn around quickly.
Despite the seemingly dire prospects, Riley liked his team's chances.
Of course, every coach heads into the season optimistic and many come away disappointed once the games start.
Riley hasn't been.
Behind stellar sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, the 14th-ranked Beavers have been one of the surprises of the college football season, tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 North after beating up-tempo Arizona over the weekend.
''The seasons are always a little bit of a mystery, but coming off a 3-9 (in 2011), you really don't know what to expect,'' Riley said Tuesday on the Pac-12 coaches' teleconference. ''The only thing I will say is this team worked hard, right through the summer and we had a real good fall camp. All the signs were good. You just had to see what came out of it.''
Oregon State's rise has been just a part of what has been a jumbled start to the Pac-12 season.
Second-ranked Oregon has played about the way everyone expected, rolling to five victories, and the conference has six teams in the Top 25, its most since 2002.
There also have been plenty of surprises - good and bad - up and down the board.
Arizona State, playing under new coach Todd Graham, is leading the Pac-12 North at 2-0.
Utah, a preseason pick to challenge Southern California in the division, is 2-2, with a loss to Utah State and the Sun Devils in its Pac-12 opener.
The Trojans, ranked 13th, had their national championship hopes dented by losing to Stanford out of the conference gate. The Cardinal then lost the next week to Washington, which moved into the poll at No. 23.
California hasn't lived up to expectations, 1-4 and winless in the Pac-12 after two games.
Arizona got off to a flying start under new coach Rich Rodriguez, rolling to three impressive wins. The Wildcats wilted once the conference season started, giving up 87 combined points in losses to the two Oregon schools.
''We know we're going to be in a lot of battles and we're not at a point where we can play poorly at any stretch of a game and hope to win,'' Rodriguez said. ''But our guys are battling and they're hanging in there.''
Stanford has gone through the biggest swing of momentum.
The Cardinal seemed to have no trouble without quarterback Andrew Luck, the top overall pick in the NFL draft, opening with three straight victories. They made a statement in the third one, manhandling then-No. 2 USC 21-14 to move into the top 10. Stanford made another statement 12 days later, rushing for just 65 yards while losing a 10-point lead in a 17-13 loss to Washington that dropped them to No. 18 in the poll.
''We all learned a valuable lesson, which is if we don't play our best football for 60 minutes, we can get beaten,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''Washington played well, but at the same time we didn't play our best football. It's not just about keeping it close so we can win it at the end. We've got to play our best football for 60 minutes.''
Oregon State has had no trouble doing that despite a stop and start season.
The Beavers didn't open their season on time, thanks to a hurricane that led to the postponement of their opener with Nicholls State. They had no trouble with the extra time, knocking off then-No. 13 Wisconsin.
Oregon State had its bye week at an awkward time the next week, meaning it played one game in three weeks while most teams played three.
The Beavers again used the extra time to their advantage, going into the Rose Bowl and beating UCLA, which was No. 19 at the time, 27-20 behind Mannion's career-high 379 yards and two touchdowns.
They kept rolling last week, outlasting Arizona 38-35 in an offensive shootout.
Now, the Beavers are up to No. 14 in the AP poll, off to their best start since 2002 and not looking like a team that will fade down the stretch.
''They're a good football team,'' Rodriguez said. ''Mike and their staff have done a good job, and you can see they're playing with a lot of confidence and kind of a sense of maturity as well.''
It's been an unpredictable start to the Pac-12 season so far. And, with two months still to go, there could be plenty more surprises in store.