There's a pretty good reason coaches don't like to use the term "must-win." Losing such a game forces a team -- and a coach -- into a corner. As in: If you lose a "must-win" then your season must-sink.
Still, sometimes it's hard not to see a line drawn in the sand. There certainly seems to be one between UCLA and Oregon State, two desperate teams that have looked mostly awful to start the season.
The home-standing Beavers: 1. Opened with a loss to an FCS team, Sacramento State. 2. Got shut out at Wisconsin, 35-zip.
The visiting Bruins: 1. Sandwiched a loss at Houston and a blowout home defeat to Texas -- teams UCLA beat in 2010 -- around a lackluster win against a bad San Jose State squad. 2. Coach Rick Neuheisel's seat is among the warmest in the country.
A must-win for Oregon State?
"Boy, it sure feels like it," coach Mike Riley said. "I don't ever use that term because you're going to have to play the next ones anyway."
He then added, "If we want to have a good year, we've got to get some confidence. We've got to win a game."
A must-win for UCLA?
"I think both Oregon State and UCLA are certainly at that point in their season where they need to win, to get this thing jump started," Neuheisel said. "If [Riley] has called it a must-win, it's easy for me to do the same."
Riley's Beavers are notorious for slow starts and for overcoming those slow starts. But this is the slowest of slow starts. Sure, the 2004 Beavers started 1-4 but finished 7-5. And the Beavers won nine games after starting 0-2 in 2008. But 0-3? The last time that happened was 1996, when Jerry Pettibone was the coach and Oregon State was still one of the nation's top ha-ha-look-at-them! sad-sack programs.
And at 0-3, it's difficult to see where the Beavers could get the six victories over the final nine games. Those are wins they would need to avoid a second-consecutive losing season, which hasn't happened since 1997-98, Riley's first two years in Corvallis.
For Neuheisel, losing at Oregon State with a visit to Stanford ahead -- a likely 1-4 start -- would almost certainly spell the end of his tenure. LA reporters would start writing "Who's next?" coaching stories, and the debate would no longer be about whether Neuheisel survives but whether he finishes the season.
So, yeah, while this game won't send ripples across the college football nation, it's very important to the two programs.
The Beavers collective mood should be better than UCLA's. For one, it's getting some key injured players back: Most specifically receiver James Rodgers and tight end Joe Halahuni. Those two should significantly bolster the passing attack, which will now be led by redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Mannion, who has eclipsed 2010 starter Ryan Katz.
"I've always thought if we could get all of our guys healthy together this would be a very good receiving corps," Riley said.
Rodgers return was only made certain Wednesday. He hasn't played since blowing out his knee at Arizona on Oct. 9, 2010.
On the downside for Oregon State, it will be down two starting defensive tackles. Castro Masaniai will be serving a suspension for an offseason arrest, while Dominic Glover hasn't been cleared academically.
The potential to run inside for UCLA should help Bruins quarterback Richard Brehaut's chances. He was named the starter this week over Kevin Prince, who threw three interceptions against Texas. Brehaut was the quarterback of record when the Bruins beat Oregon State 17-14 last year, but the key in that game was 210 yards rushing. And the Beavers don't have DT Stephen Paea in the middle any more.
UCLA remains uncertain at quarterback, but this is a good opportunity for Brehaut to stake his claim to the full-time job. The Beavers rank last in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. They've yet to record an interception while yielding seven touchdowns and a 69 percent completion rate.
"I think [Brehaut] has a high regard for his ability and is desperate to prove he's the guy," Neuheisel said.
The same can be said for Neuheisel.
At 2-2, there is hope in Westwood. Lose at Stanford but beat Washington State at home, and the Bruins are 3-3 at midseason with a manageable schedule ahead. A bowl is still possible. And Neuheisel could still survive.
Riley is one of the nicest guys in coaching. But he's not spending too much time worrying about Neuheisel's precarious situation. He's got his own must-win motives.
Said Riley, "It would be a really big thing for this team to win a game."