It's also a riveting matchup of two superb head coaches, each of whom has weathered adversity with aplomb. We'll start with the new guy.
The cameras couldn't get enough of Chip Kelly on the first Thursday in September, the rookie head coach living a rookie head coach's nightmare. The sheen on Kelly's forehead, as Boise State blew up play after play, had to be flop sweat, right? Kelly's calm veneer as his quarterback made a string of poor decisions; as his clueless offensive line whiffed on block after block; as his vaunted, spread attack proved incapable of racking up a single first down in the first half -- that had to be a facade, right? A lid covering a cauldron of panic.
Or not. Kelly has gotten his team to the cusp of the Rose Bowl by ... changing very little. Oregon has gone from that debacle on the blue rug to the de facto Pac-10 title game by ... continuing to do what it was doing, just doing it better. In this way, Kelly paid unintentional homage to his Civil War counterpart, Mike Riley, the conference's serene, smiling Zen master at staying the course.
Check out this sad little petition from 2006, when a scattering of disgruntled Oregon State fans wanted Riley gone. Seeking 5,000 signatures, they netted ... 59. Even then, the vast majority of Beavers fans grasped what the petitioners didn't: that they're lucky to have this guy.
I intend no disrespect to the talented, hardworking Beavers by pointing out that no Division I program does more with less. In a state that yields roughly 10 Division I prospects a year, Riley and his staff have been more resourceful than Les Stroud and Bear Grylls put together. It is a measure of their eye for talent, and ability as teachers, that seven Beavers players were selected in last spring's NFL draft -- second most in the country behind USC, against whom Oregon State is .500 since '06. None of those players, remarkably, fielded a scholarship offer from another Pac-10 school.
Every season under Riley, the Beavers are one of the most improved teams in the country. They start slow -- 2-2 in 2009, 2-3 each of the previous three seasons -- figure out who they are, then go on a tear. Oregon State finished with 10 wins in '06, and nine each of the past two seasons. Since returning to Corvallis for his second tour of duty as head coach, Riley is 5-0 in bowl games.
But he is 3-3 in his last six Civil Wars. The Beavers, who haven't played in the Rose Bowl since 1965, were Pasadena-bound a year ago, until the Ducks arrived at Reser Stadium and routed their rivals 65-38, thereby diverting the Beavers to El Paso, for the Sun Bowl. I recall interviewing a thirtysomething Ducks fan on the field afterward. He told me how good it felt to spoil Oregon State's season, then excused himself, explaining with a straight face, "I have to go dance on the Beaver."
I think, for the first time since he returned to Corvallis in 2003, Riley loses his second straight Civil War. The Beavers are going into a buzz saw at Autzen Stadium tonight. One of their best hopes is that the Ducks, favored by 10, come out tight. That doesn't appear to be this team's personality -- at least not since it embarrassed itself in Boise. In its previous huge matchup at Autzen -- on Halloween night against USC -- the Ducks were astonishingly loose, taking after the example of theirfirst-year head coach. Oregon proceeded to take the Trojans apart, 47-20. And this was back when beating 'SC still meant something.
Under Kelly, Oregon practices are faster, more intense than ever before. I sat in on a team meeting on the eve of their win over Washington: He was crisp, rapid fire, supremely confident -- unaffected by the disaster in Boise.
"Pressure is what you feel when you don't know what you're doing," he told his team, "and you guys know what you're doing. You prepare better than anybody I've ever been around."
Playing the game, he continued, is like taking a test. "You go to class, you do your homework, you can't wait to take that test. You're thinking, bring it on, I'm going to kick its ass!"
I don't know that either team gets its butt kicked tonight. Although that spread seems a bit generous, I do believe the Ducks will win, in so doing turning their season into a tale of two very different Thursday nights.