By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Beavers were a boom or bust team last season. They started the year with a stunning 49-46 loss to FCS foe Eastern Washington, but then ripped off a six-game win streak to put themselves back in contention. However, five straight setbacks kept them from making a serious run at the top of the Pac-12 North, and a more meaningful bowl game.
That is not to say the Beavers did not enjoy a spot in the postseason, as they took down Boise State, 38-23, in the Hawaii Bowl.
The 7-6 finish was a step back from the previous year, when Oregon State finished 9-4 and got an invite to the Alamo Bowl. If the Beavers hope to avoid trending downward, they will need to avoid such a roller coaster ride through the 2014 campaign.
"I think the key is not getting stagnant with what you do and to continue to try to grow in every way," Head coach Mike Riley said. "I've been to a lot of these things now, but I feel heading into a new year, like a little bit of a rookie again, I don't really want to lose that."
OFFENSE: Add Oregon State to the ranks of powerful offensive teams in the Pac-12. The Beavers have climbed from 73rd nationally in total offense in 2011 (373.5 ypg) to a 26th-place finish a year ago (467 ypg).
The primary means by which the Beavers have created their offensive rebirth is via the passing game. Led by strong-armed quarterback Sean Mannion and Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Brandin Cooks, the Beavers smashed records and piled up the yards last season. Cooks is no longer around, but Mannion is back in the saddle to lead the charge once again.
Mannion has played a key role in the Beavers offense each of the last three seasons, but he had a momentous rise to stardom a year ago. He completed 66.3 percent of his 603 pass attempts for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns. He was intercepted 15 times, but his touchdown total eclipsed that of his first two seasons combined (31). Without Cooks he may not have a go-to receiver just yet, but his arm strength and decision making are top notch.
Richard Mullaney (52 receptions, 788 yards, 3 TDs) is a reliable option, but he doesn't provide as much big-play ability as Cooks did. Tight end Connor Hamlett (40 receptions, 364 yards, 5 TDs) should figure to be an even more important player this season, and the Beavers will continue to use their running backs in passing situations as well. Storm Woods (47 receptions, 440 yards, 1 TD) ranked third on the team in receptions and receiving yards, while adding 477 yards and 6 scores on the ground. He should continue to split duties in the backfield with Terron Ward, who had 857 all-purpose yards in 2013.
"We're probably not going to have one guy go out and catch 128 balls this year. So we're going to need more from a lot of people. And I think we're capable of that," Riley said.
The offensive line will be strong up the middle, with guard Sean Harlow and center Isaac Seumalo returning starters. However, the rest of the unit will be a work in progress.
DEFENSE: While Oregon State's offense has been on the rise, its defense has been headed in the opposite direction. The Beavers ranked 30th in the country in total defense during the nine-win campaign in 2012, but fell all the way to 101st a year ago (436.6 ypg). Six starters return from that group, so there is a chance that production will be improved.
That is especially true if the experienced linebacking crew lives up to its billing. D.J. Alexander (63 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and Jabari Johnson (94 tackles, 3.5 TFL) are each impressive playmakers. They will be joined by Michael Doctor, who played in only two games due to injury last year, but was a force in 2012 when he tallied 83 stops, including 11 for loss.
The secondary is another area of strength, at least based on experience, with cornerback Steven Nelson and safeties Tyrequek Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy all returning to the starting lineup. Zimmerman led the team with 104 tackles last season, Murphy added 74, including 8 for loss as well as 3 interceptions. All Nelson did was tie teammate Rashaad Reynolds, Washington State's Deone Bucannon and Arizona State's Robert Nelson for the Pac-12 lead in interceptions (six).
The defensive line needs a lot more work, with only Dylan Wynn returning to his familiar spot at defensive end. Wynn needs to take over for Scott Crichton, who had 7.5 sacks last season. Wynn had only one, but did manage 67 tackles. Miami transfer Jalen Grimble is a player to watch as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Trevor Romaine went 14-of-20 on field goal attempts last season, so he needs to improve a bit on his accuracy. Keith Kostol was a decent punter, averaging 40.5 yards per punt, but he could also make some strides.
Cooks was the primary punt returner last season. Victor Bolden had over 1,000 return yards and a touchdown as a kickoff returner, so he may be called on to continue in that position and shift over for punts as well.
OUTLOOK: The unreal passing numbers that Oregon State put up last season were unexpected. This year, Riley and company will probably strive for more balance, especially with Cooks no longer around for Mannion to lean on.
The non-conference schedule won't present much of a challenge, with home games against Portland State and San Diego State and a trip to take on Hawaii. However, the front end of the Pac-12 slate is grueling, with three of the first four league games taking place on the road. That includes bouts at USC and Stanford. The end of the year features more home games, but finishing with rival Oregon is always a difficult task.
All told, the schedule lines up favorably enough for Oregon State to once again be in the thick of things when it comes to bowl contention. Making a move into the elite of the conference will be tough to do unless a few receivers really step up, the run game drastically improves, and the defense makes an astronomical leap. Those are a lot of requirements for one season, so the best may still be a few years away for the Beavers.
08/22 10:51:10 ET