When No. 14 Oregon State walks into Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington, to face No. 21 Washington State on Saturday, history will be made. Never before have the Beavers and Cougars met as ranked opponents in 97 previous matchups. WSU officials expect a sellout in front of a national broadcast television audience. This has all the elements for a college football prize fight.
"It should create the question," Washington State athletic director Pat Chun told CBS Sports, "How are two ranked football programs with the history both programs have in the circumstances that they're in?"
In one corner, Oregon State comes in with its highest AP Top 25 ranking in more than a decade. In the other, Washington State gets back to business, returning to the rankings for the first time since the late Mike Leach left the program in 2019.
While these two schools will be on opposite sides come Saturday, off the field and in the boardroom, they are fighting an uncertain future together.
The Pac-12 was ravaged over the summer, one year after USC and UCLA stunned the collegiate sports universe by announcing their intentions to join the Big Ten in 2024. Oregon and Washington will be joining the Trojans and Bruins out East; Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah have found a new home in the Big 12; Stanford and Cal will be departing for the ACC. Oregon State and Washington State, meanwhile, have been left adrift as the last two teams remaining in the Pac-12.
The 10 defectors have attempted to control conference assets and utilize the funds to help with their respective transitions. Even Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has been slapped with lawsuits. Once the 2023 season reaches a conclusion, the two holdovers will not have a television deal on which to lean with the Pac-12's current media rights deal set to expire in 2024 and the conference on life support.
For two schools that have essentially been present since the beginning of major college football, it's an infuriating pill to swallow. But, at the same time, a nationally televised matchup of ranked teams provides a signature moment for these two schools to prove their worth.
"I think we're on a national stage again to show why we belong," Washington State coach Jake Dickert told CBS Sports. "And I don't want that weight on our program, but it's also understanding the moment. I think you've got to accept that pressure. Pressure is a privilege."
Oregon State was one of four charter members of the Pacific Coast Conference in 1915, the league that eventually became the Pac-12. Two years later, Washington State tagged along. From the PCC to AAWU to the Pac-8 and beyond, the two schools survived every transition and played at the highest level of college football. Starting in 2024, after the departure of 10 members, the league as we know it ceases to exist.
"I was sad, honestly, being a West Coast guy," said Oregon State defensive back Kitan Oladapo, who hails from Happy Valley, Oregon. "They're getting rid of the Pac-12 just for a TV deal, too? I was sad for younger guys to not be able to experience the Pac-12 fully."
In many ways, Oregon State and Washington State are poster children for how college football has changed. The sport has centered on regionality and history for generations. Oregon played Oregon State. Washington played Washington State. USC's schedule focused on the Pacific Coast. It was best for the athletes and best for the fans. No more. In this new era, spreadsheets, ratings and marks take center stage.
Pullman, Washington, and Corvallis, Oregon, won't make many lists of the most prominent television markets in America, but that was never the point. OSU and Wazzu were created as land-grant institutions to serve an agricultural populace. At one time, that was seen as the beauty of the sport.
"It's just hard to really understand what the merit is," Dickert said. "I just know the fabric of college football is places just like us: Small town, big college, huge passion, fanfare, that region of the country stops on game days ... that's what makes college special. So, why don't we want to keep doing that?"
Instead of playing games within a few hundred miles, Stanford will soon play conference games at Boston College, nearly 3,000 miles away. UCLA will go to Rutgers. Arizona plays at UCF. The ACC and Big Ten will span three time zones and from coast-to-coast based on the power of brand.
"People use this term I've read, that relegation has begun," Chun said. "Well, when I study European soccer, there is no relegation model that would relegate a school that has been to seven consecutive bowl games."
Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes noted that Oregon State is one of only two teams nationally to have a 10-win football season, have both men's and women's basketball reach the Elite Eight and send both baseball and softball to the College World Series.
"Those things should matter more," Barnes told CBS Sports. "The quality of our football program facilities and caliber of play should matter more. Our fan base should matter more."
In 2018, Oregon State hired former Beavers star quarterback Jonathan Smith to lead the program. Over the last three years, the program has embarked on a magical turnaround, capped last year with the program's first 10-win season in more than 15 years. Despite playing in one of the best iterations of the Pac-12 in a decade, the Beavers have a puncher's chance – 10-1 odds – to win the conference.
"They're rallying, people are excited," Smith told CBS Sports. "People are here continuing to be engaged, and there is a new energy with it. We feel like we're really supported, people want us to have success."
Oregon State's community has responded. In an interview prior to the season, Barnes said that season ticket sales were up more than 20% in less than a month after the Pac-12's collapse. Oregon State's first home game against an FCS opponent boasted 35,728 fans, higher than the listed capacity of Reser Stadium.
The football team has responded, too. In a 42-17 road win against San Jose State, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei became the first Beavers quarterback since 1996 to throw for three touchdowns and run for two more. Running back Damian Martinez has rushed for 100 yards every week. The program has now won 10 of their last 11 games, including a 38-34 win over rival Oregon in last year's regular-season finale.
"I think it's a rallying cry for the pride that Beaver Nation has for this place and the care they have for our student-athletes," Barnes said. "It's just become a rallying cry to show the nation who we are."
Not to be outdone, Dickert's Washington State squad has come into the 2023 season on fire. A 50-24 road win against Colorado State -- yes, those same Rams that lost in double-overtime to Deion Sanders and Colorado -- has aged like fine wine. One week later, Washington State jumped out to a 15-point halftime lead against Wisconsin in an emotional 31-22 victory.
After the game, Dickert stepped to the microphone in front of a sold-out crowd storming the field and said that Washington State deserved to be part of the Power Five.
"It was loud, it was electric, you could just feel what it meant to [the fans]," Dickert said. "They understood the moment. They understood what they can provide the team. Washington State is the fabric of Pullman, we're so ingrained, it's who we all are together."
Oregon State and Washington State remain in limbo weeks into this season. The four remaining power conferences have rebuffed interest. The AAC released a statement confirming that it will not move further west from its footprint, even after losing SMU. The schools, however, have reportedly held conversations with the Mountain West.
Still, the Beavers and Cougars remain focused on trying to rebuild the Pac-12. The schools were awarded a temporary restraining order against the Pac-12 on Sept. 11, which prevents the 10 schools that are departing next year from making decisions on behalf of the conference. Long term, the pair hopes to prove in court that they should be seen as the only heirs to the Pac-12 after 10 schools withdrew with various levels of formality.
"It's incredibly frustrating that this is where we're at," Chun said. "But on the flip side, we are not going to be the victims in our own story."
Saturday in Pullman, courtrooms and legal filings are put to the side. Football is front and center. Oregon State has not won on the road against Washington State since 2013 and has lost eight of the last nine overall. The Cougars, however, hope to avenge a 24-10 loss from last season, the biggest margin of victory by either team since 2018.
"While we're connected in this journey going together and hopefully rebuilding the Pac-12, make no mistake about it, it's not going to be friendly on that field," Dickert said. "It's going to be two teams that want to prove who they are in the very first game of Pac-12 play."