After sitting out the first weekend of the college football season with a bye, the Beavers were flying far below any radar when they opened the season against a nationally ranked Wisconsin team. However, on that Saturday the Beavers stunned the nation by pulling out a 10-7 victory. It wasn't a fluke. Oregon State won its next five games as well, including important conference victories over UCLA and Arizona. After the win streak the Beavers had risen to No. 7 in the Top 25, its highest ranking since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl squad.
The Beavers struggled the rest of the way though, beginning with a 20-17 loss at Washington. Including that game the Beavers traded wins and losses the rest of the season, including a disappointment in the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Still at 9-4 the Beavers far exceeded the severely limited expectations the 2011 team had created. The six-win improvement by Oregon State was the best one-year improvement in program history.
OFFENSE: Most teams that get to nine wins have their quarterback situation pretty much locked down all season. That wasn't the case for Oregon State. Incumbent starter Sean Mannion began the year under center but a knee injury sidelined him after a 4-0 start. Backup Cody Vaz then came in and after winning his first two starts, gave head coach Mike Riley more than one option the rest of the way.
Mannion was a more accurate passer than Vaz as he completed 64.7 percent of his pass attempts, while totaling 2,446 yards passing with 15 touchdowns. Vaz threw for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns in more than 100 fewer pass attempts and made better decisions as his three interceptions were 10 fewer than Mannion.
There won't be a decision about a full-time starter until the end of camp and Riley may even use both signal callers like he did in the second half of last season.
"It's nice to have two guys who know what they're doing," Riley said of his two signal callers.
Each quarterback had plenty of options to throw to last season as the Beavers had one of the more explosive and productive receiving duos in the conference and the country overall. One half of that pair is gone with Markus Wheaton lost to the NFL. That leaves Brandin Cooks, who is perhaps an even more dangerous threat with his breakaway speed. Cooks caught 67 passes for 1,151 yards last season for an impressive 17.2 yards per reception average. Lesser used targets like Kevin Cummings (18 rec, 208 yards, TD) will be called on to line up across from Cooks. Expect tight end Connor Hamlett (32 rec, 403 yards, 3 TDs) to also become a larger factor.
"I feel that the void that Marcus left, one of those guys will step up and be playmakers and take that pressure off and (opposing teams) won't be able to do the double coverage, things like that," Cooks said of the group of receivers around him.
The running game wasn't a strength for the Beavers last season as they ranked 10th in the conference in rushing yards per game (124.4 ypg). Starting running back Storm Woods' lingering knee issues were part of the reason, though he still managed to finish with 940 yards and 13 touchdowns. An improvement on those numbers by a now healthy Woods is anticipated.
Oregon State is fortunate enough to have four of its five starters from last season back on the offensive line. Sophomore center Isaac Seumalo is the most intriguing member of that group and could very well be an all-conference pick.
DEFENSE: Even with the loss of All-American safety Jordan Poyer, the Beavers are still loaded in the secondary. That is primarily the result of cornerback Rashaad Reynolds returning for his senior season.
Reynolds is one of the few shutdown cornerbacks in the conference after he led the team with 16 passes defended, while collecting three interceptions and 75 tackles last season. Both safety slots are filled by players with starting experience with Tyrequek Zimmerman (63 tackles) and Ryan Murphy (67 tackles) returning.
The only player on the defensive side of the field to have recorded more tackles than Reynolds for the Beavers last season was linebacker Michael Doctor. Used in an outside spot, Doctor also had 11.0 tackles for loss. D.J. Alexander (50 tackles, 5.5 TFL) is the other outside linebacker and creates a nice tandem on the edges both against the run and pass. Finding the right man for the middle will be key.
The defensive line is another area where there is plenty of returning production but also a good amount of retooling going on. Scott Crichton finished with 17.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks as a sophomore. The productive defensive end teams with fellow returning starter Dylan Wynn on the line. A number of junior college transfers like Edwin Delva will be called on to eat up room in the middle. Expect a number of players to be rotated into those slots.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Poyer's loss doesn't just leave a need at safety but in the return game as Poyer was the team's primary punt returner. Terron Ward averaged 22.5 yards per return as the primary kick returner and may get a shot at taking back punts as well.
The other specialists are all set. Kicker Trevor Romaine nailed 16-of-18 field goal attempts last season and 51-of-54 extra points. Keith Kostol averaged a respectable 41.9 yards average on 59 punts.
OUTLOOK: It's difficult to tell which Oregon State is the real one. Is it the squad that ran out to a 6-0 record and broke into the top 10 in the national rankings or the one that was inconsistent in going 3-4 to end the season? Riley believes it is the former while keeping his team focused on not getting complacent.
"The one thing I've tried to reinforce is there are no accidents in this thing," Riley said. "You've got to go earn everything you're going to get. Just because of what the team last year did, there's no guarantees about that."
Unlike last season Oregon State will be in action in the first week of the season as it takes on FCS foe Eastern Washington to open the campaign. The Beavers then host Hawaii, play the Pac-12 opener on the road against Utah and another away contest against San Diego State, before battling Colorado to end September. A trip to Pullman to play Washington State kicks off the next portion of the schedule, which gets increasingly difficult as the campaign wears on. The second half of the schedule includes contests against Stanford and USC as well as trips to Tempe and Eugene to face Arizona State and hated rival Oregon in the season finale.
The non-conference slate isn't particularly challenging this season. However, the conference schedule is less forgiving, especially in the North Division where giants Oregon and Stanford are expected to battle it out for the crown. Still, Oregon State will be a team to be reckoned with this season. It just won't be sneaking up on anyone this time.