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the Gekko Files: Oregon State 2014 Preview

Every year, the Beavers limp into the offseason and, every year, Mike Riley reloads. Is this another cycle or is this the year that the hotseat fires up in Corvallis?

Mike Riley has a lot on his mind as he plots out his gameplan for the 2014 Pac 12 race.
Mike Riley has a lot on his mind as he plots out his gameplan for the 2014 Pac 12 race.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

What is it about Oregon State?  How is it that every offseason this scrappy bunch of players can look so outmanned on paper compared to the rest of the Pac 12 North and then scare the bejeebees out of every Steve, John and David out there once conference play begins.

There are words to describe phenomenons like this if you are viewing the world from the point of view of other Pac 12 programs.  Graveling comes to mind.  Chafing, as well.  Nettling?  Yup that works.

Pick your adjective.  Every year the Beavers seem to get gutted by the loss of key players and every year they seem to restock the shelves with pieces from the recycle bin, whether it be an experienced depth player getting a starting shot or a JC transfer finding a home in Corvallis.

This season is no different.  Mike Riley and co enter 2014 looking to replace their best two players on either side of the line of scrimmage in addition to a few key pieces from their coaching staff. Is this another typical Mike Riley season or is this the pressing of the big ol' reset button in Corvallis?  Who knows?  The Gekko knows.

2013 Recap:  What I said

Long time readers of the Gekko Files know that I like to review my verbatims from the previous season to see if my predictions were near the mark.  For the Beavers, here were some of my predictions:

Predicted Divisional Rank
Actual Divisional Rank
2013 Overall Prediction
2013 Actual Overall

In addition, here is what I said regarding Oregon State's outlook as predicted them to finish last in the Pac 12 North in 2013:

Gone are their two best players from a year ago. The direct middle of the defense (two DTs and a MLB) is being overhauled. A ridiculous number of JCs are being counted on to not only play, but to start. The QB situation still isn't resolved. The presence of offensive playmakers outside of Brandin Cooks remains to be seen....

...there is a chance that the Riley magic could well be seen again this season. Still, I don't like how all of this is coming together in a season where so many other teams seem to be taking steps forward.

As it turns out, the Beavers were able to sprinkle in a little Riley magic in between bouts of severe collapse.  After a devastating home loss to the FCS aligned Eastern Washington Eagles to start the season, Riley coaxed a six game winning streak that included four road wins. However, those games were all against the weaker parts of the Pac 12.

That streak was immediately followed by five straight losses to the upper tier teams in the Pac which included blowouts at the hands of both ASU and at home versus Washington.  Still, the Beavers were able to rally after the UW game and took #12 Oregon to the wire in a one point loss in the Civil War that, in reality, should have been a game for them to win were it not for an ironic big play at the end on their part that actually left Oregon too much time on the clock to respond to.  Still, the momentum from the Civil War was palpable and Beavers were able to seize it in rolling over a Chris Petersen-less Boise State squad in the Hawai'i Bowl to end their season.

The offseason was a mixed affair for the Beavers as they said goodbye to key contributors like Biletnikoff Award winning WR Brandin Cooks, All P12 DE Scott Crichton, standout DB Rashaad Reynolds and backup QB Cody Vaz.  The Beavers will also have to replace long time OC Danny Langsdorf who moved on to take over the QB coach job with the NY Giants.  On the flip side, Riley was able to convince Sean Mannion, who led the P12 in passing yards, to return to the team, secure a number of key JC transfers and land a typical "Mike Riley kinda class" with a recruiting haul that really emphasized beefy players like 330 lb OL Kammy Delp and 300 lb DL Kalani Vakameilalo.  Classic Mike Riley

Previewing 2014:  The Beavers

If 2014 is going to e successful, it will start with Mike Riley getting effective line play on the Defensive side of the ball.  This is a familiar refrain for Beavers fans who, every year, seem to wait on pins and needles for the next "no name" guy to arrive and lock down the defensive line.  It is rarely the case that somebody fails to do so.

Fortunately for the Beavers, not all is hopeless.  They welcome back eight starters overall on Defense. Replacing Reynolds and Crichton, in particular, will be difficult. However, Michael Doctor - presumably healthy - will be anchoring one of the best LB units in the league along with seniors D.J. Alexander and Jabral Johnson.  The secondary, led by CB Steven Nelson projects as a mid-tier unit in the P12 but will look to surprise us again as they did in 2013 when they picked off 19 passes for the season.  The big question is the Defensive Line where three of four starters will have to be replaced.  The good news is that DL coach Joe Seumalo has bodies to work with.  In addition to returner Dylan Wynn, the DE corps will be able to count on Jaswha James (Jr) and Lavonte Barnett (Jr) as featured rotation players.  Beyond that, the pickings get slim.  Former WR Obum Gwacham (Sr) will be counted on.  The interior has questions of its own.  The biggest - quite literally - is whether or not Miami transfer Jalen Grimble (JR, 300 lbs) can be counted on to be the run stuffer that DC Mark Banks needs him to be.

The offensive side of the ball also has significant questions to answer.  Most prominent will be whether or not QB Mannion can put up huge numbers with Brandin Cooks, who caught nearly 30% of Mannion's completions, gone.   WR Victor Bolden is the key to this question given his status as a young up and coming player.  However, he only registered six catches last year as a frosh.  Richard Mullaney (Jr) is the top returning receiver with 52 catches, and he is a reliable if not sexy playmaker.  Beyond that, WR depth will likely defer to the TE position with Washington product Caleb Smith (Jr) and Connor Hamlett (Sr) carrying a big part of the load.  Unfortunately, the Beavers have seen a lot of deterioration of depth at the TE spot with transfers and medical retirements, so how the passing game all works out in the end is anybody's guess.

The rushing attack and pass protection are also areas of focus.  In short, this is a mess.  The Beavers are replacing three offensive line starters and have question marks surrounding the health of a few others - including their star C Isaac Seumalo.  In fact, it is unlikely that any seniors will start for Riley's o-line and that young but talented RFr Will Hopkins may start the season protecting Mannion's blind side at LT.  Hopkins - who came to OSU as a TE - appeared to beat out JC transfer Bobby Keenan this spring.  This motley crew will be blocking for a RB corps that has failed to impress the past few years.  Both Terron Ward and Storm Woods have talent, but have been inhibited by their line.  That said, keep an eye on backup Chris Brown this year.

Three Questions and a Comment: Andy Panda, Building the Dam

1. What OSU position group has you most worried heading into 2014? Why?

Andy: The offensive line. It's key to protecting an immobile Sean Mannion, and also getting a running game going on a more consistent basis. It also has to replace 3 starters, and the new comers didn't get to work on timing with center Isaac Seumalo during spring practice.

I became more concerned when replacing Michael Philipp at LT didn't go as planned this spring. JC transfer Bobby Keenan was expected to take over, and early on, it looked like he was settling in pretty well.  But as time went on, he seemed to hit a learning curve ceiling, and experiments ensued with converted tight end Dustin Stanton and Will Hopkins, both of whom are undersized for the job.

This has to get sorted out by mid-September, or a potentially pretty good season has the potential to unravel pretty quickly.

2. How likely is it that Mike Riley will finally end up on the hot seat in 2014? Why or why not?

Andy: Highly unlikely. That's not to say there won't be a lot of heated members of Beaver Nation if there should be a loss to Portland St., or another epic blowout against a completely mis-prepared team like happened last year to Washington. Or opportunities for wins that get away like happened against Stanford and Oregon when inexplicable play calling leaves points on the field.

But the Beavers have just been to back to back bowl games, and Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis has a basketball coaching change to pay off, as well as a long list of facility projects to get to work on paying for. It will take more than one bad year before DeCarolis will be willing to think about taking on the financial hit of buying out a football coach under contract well into the next decade.

3. Who is the best Beaver that nobody has ever heard of? Why?

Andy: Well, almost everyone has been heard of by someone, but not too many (besides film study crazed defensive coaches) probably know about Oregon St. senior fullback Tyler Anderson. He's had some injury issues, but seems healthy heading into this season, and when healthy the last couple of years has been a force in short yardage situations.

The Beavers will win the Civil War in 2014 because ... (feel free to elaborate)

Andy: Well, they probably won't.  The Ducks still have too much speed for the Beavers. But if there is to be an upset, it will be because Mannion will have a chance to deliver a game winning drive at the end. (He actually did that last year, but left enough time on the clock for the defense to self-destruct.)

Oregon St.'s best chance to beat Oregon will be with the ball in Mannion's hands with the game on the line, not with him standing on the sideline.

Predicting 2014:  Oregon State Beavers

The presence of Mike Riley is always cause for optimism.  He's repeatedly shown an ability to develop players across the board and a discipline to not play talented players before they are physically ready to do so.  His leadership is unquestionable and his players will literally run through a brick wall if he asks them to do so.  However, this is not a complete team by any stretch of the imagination.

As both Andy and I have higlighted, the Offensive LIne is in a state of unreadiness and one of the least stable in the Pac 12.  This does not bode well for a mediocre RB corps and a QB who is amongst the least mobile in the entire conference.  In the off-chance that Mannion is able to find time in his pocket, his receiving options are going to be thin and unable to withstand much attrition in the season should the injury bug bite.

The success of the season will hinge on the defense.  I think the Beavers do boast one of the two or three best LB corps in the conference and, unlike the O-Line, I'm pretty optimistic about their ability to reload on that defensive line, even if it takes three or four games for those bodies to get into rhythm.  Unfortunately, even good defenses can get chewed up in Pac 12 play when the likes of Oregon, ASU and USC are on your schedule.

Speaking of schedules, Oregon State's does not lay out very well for them.  While they do get five home games this year, three of them come against teams that they would have been favored against on the road and one of them, Oregon, is a game that they will still be a big underdog in.  Their big road contests are USC, Stanford and Washington.  Their OOC schedule features Portland St, @ Hawaii and always tough SDSU.  Curiously, they have chosen not to schedule an extra game as the rules allow when a team visits Hawaii.  Regardless, the best part of this otherwise difficult schedule is the Beavs get three of their last four at home with the fourth being their visit to Montlake on Nov 22nd.

Summed up, this looks like another difficult journey for Mike Riley.  I hate to get burned by Riley proving me wrong once again, but I don't see more than five games that they'll be clear favorites in.  Toss ups against WSU and Utah will be critical for their bowl hopes with the late season game against UW potentially laying out as a "must-win" for OSU.  I do think OSU will reach six wins and bowl eligibility, but it will be another near-bottom of the North finish when all is said and done.