PHOENIX — Oregon State is off to its best start since before World War I, undefeated and up to No. 7 in the BCS standings after winning a total of just eight games in the previous two seasons combined.
In the Pac-12, all that has done is keep the Beavers (No. 7 AP) even with Oregon (No. 2 AP, No. 4 BCS) for the North Division lead.
It has been a fun ride so far, but now is not the time for the Beavers to get caught up in how far they have come and where they might end up. Too many games remain, and too much is at stake.
“Sometimes it’s a disconnect, kind of a funny feeling," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said Tuesday. “I sometimes see it on TV or something, the rankings, but I’ve always in good or bad seasons felt like we’ve lived in a bubble, where our focus immediately turns to the next game."
Oregon State is not the only team that needs to stay sharp.
The division races are heating up in the Pac-12 as teams jockey for spots in the conference championship game on Nov. 30 and the best bowl game possible.
In the North, Oregon and Oregon State are tied for the division lead at 4-0, and No. 9 Stanford is just a game back at 3-1.
No. 10 Southern California leads the South at 4-1, half a game ahead of 3-1 Arizona State. UCLA is still in the division picture at 2-2, but the Bruins really cannot afford any slips over the final five games of the season.
None of the teams still in the division races has an easy remaining schedule.
Oregon State (6-0) has a road game against Washington this week, followed by Arizona State, Stanford, California and its annual Civil War with Oregon in Corvallis on Nov. 24. The Beavers have a quirk in the schedule thanks to a postponement due to a hurricane, facing Nicholls State on Dec. 1 (unless they wind up in the Pac-12 championship game), but that will have no impact on the conference race.
Oregon (7-0) has been unstoppable so far this season, its closest game a 17-point win over Fresno State. The Ducks have the nation’s second-best scoring offense at 51 points and are eighth in total offense at 529.14 yards after rolling over Arizona State 43-21 last Thursday night.
Oregon should have no problem against Colorado at home on Saturday — the Ducks are more than six-touchdown favorites — but the Ducks still have games against USC, California and Stanford before their rivalry game against Oregon State.
The Ducks have aspirations of reaching the BCS title game for the second time in three years, but they cannot afford a letdown now.
“What’s going to go on in December or if we have an opportunity to play in January means nothing if we don’t go focus on our next game, so that’s all I can really talk about, just the next one up," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “The teams that get sidetracked, start talking about we want to play in this game, we want to play in that game, don’t take care of business in the present. For us, we’re always going to be in the present."
In the South, USC seems to be in control, on a roll since losing to Stanford 21-14 in its conference opener. The Trojans’ four straight wins include a 50-6 home rout of Colorado last Saturday.
USC still has some tough games left, starting with what should be an offensive shootout against Arizona on Saturday. After that, the Trojans have games against Oregon, Arizona State and rival UCLA before closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.
Stanford still has a shot at the North title despite following up its big win over USC with a loss to Washington the next week.
The Cardinal outlasted Arizona in overtime three weeks ago and followed a close nonconference loss to Notre Dame with a spirit-infusing 21-3 win over rival California this past Saturday in the Big Game.
Stanford needs to avoid a letdown against Washington State and Colorado over the next two weeks before closing out the season with games against Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA.
“We’ve talked on our team about the fact that we’ve let a couple of games get away from us and that we can’t afford to have highs and lows anymore," Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We’ve got to start playing our best football and play our best football for weeks, and not for a series, not for a quarter, not for half a game."
Until last Thursday, Arizona State (5-2) had been one of the surprises in college football in its first six weeks under new coach Todd Graham, taking the South lead after winning its first three conference games and USC’s loss to Stanford.
The Sun Devils got a big punch to the gut in their last game, though, overwhelmed by Oregon at home to fall behind the Trojans for the division lead. Arizona State has a tough road toward making up the small gap, with a backloaded schedule that starts with UCLA at home on Saturday and includes Oregon State, USC and a closer against rival Arizona in Tucson.
“Coming off a game that we didn’t play well, we go to the next game," Graham said. “This is a big, important game. Our guys have a lot to play for and this is the time. This is the end of October and November, and this is when you decide your fate."