Posted on June 8, 2020
By Dane Miller, SportsPac12
With the college football season fast approaching, we continue our twelve-part 2020 Pac-12 football previews with the Oregon State Beavers. The weekly series culminates in Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
Posted on June 8, 2020
General Outlook: Beavers Appear Poised for Breakout Season
Overview: After winning more games last year than in the previous two seasons combined, the Oregon State Beavers are looking to replace the deadly one-two punch of Jake Luton and Isaiah Hodgins. Head coach Jonathan Smith has successfully upgraded OSU’s talent across the board, and his third year at the helm may be his most prosperous to date.
Best-Case Scenario: Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia shines in his first full season under center, leading the Beavers to a bowl game for the first time in seven years behind Jermar Jefferson’s 1,000 yards rushing and Hamilcar Rashed Jr.’s 30 tackles-for-loss.
Worst-Case Scenario: Oregon State stumbles in Smith’s third season, struggling to reach three wins and denting the Beavs’ recruiting momentum. Gebbia turns the ball over too often without a go-to wide receiver, opponents stack the box to stop Jefferson, and junior college transfer Chance Nolan is unable to lead the offense with any more success.
What Should Happen: With a dependable running back in Jefferson, Gebbia’s relative inexperience is mitigated with a run-first attack that leads OSU to its second-straight five-plus-win season. Linebacker Rashed Jr. anchors a defense that forces timely turnovers and is the difference-maker in close contests. Off the field, recruiting momentum grows and the Beavers continue to emerge as a power in the North.
What Must Happen: Gebbia or Nolan needs to hit the ground running to ensure the offense runs smoothly and puts up enough points to win games. Either quarterback must be willing to scramble and take hits while staying healthy. On defense, Rashed Jr. has to play up to expectations, and the defensive line must make a jump from last season.
Greatest Strength: Star Running Back & Solid Linebacker Play
Not many teams in the Conference have a better trifecta of linebackers to go with a seasoned and explosive running back. The leadership at the skill-positions, combined with their raw-skill, is a valuable asset that Smith will rely on while breaking in a new quarterback.
With the graduation of Artavis Pierce, the Beavers will rely on Jefferson returning to his freshman form after battling injuries last season. If the junior running back can approach his 1,380 rushing yards from two years ago, his presence will be a powerful deterrent to any team focused on flustering OSU’s quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, Rashed Jr.’s command of the defense forms the backbone of a solid linebacker corps, along with Omar Speights and Avery Roberts. The strong play of Speights and Roberts is coessential to Rashed Jr.’s dominence.
Biggest Concern: Big Shoes to Fill at the Receiver Positions
After losing Isaiah Hodgins to the NFL Draft, the Beavers are left without a proven go-to threat at wide receiver. Trevon Bradford is the heir apparent, but other than his 2018 season he hasn’t shown enough consistency to put fear into opposing defenses. That could be an issue for Smith, who will be forced to deal with defenses that focus on stopping Jefferson. Combined with a new quarterback, the lack of weapons on the edge is a cause for concern.
Champ Flemings and Kolby Taylor are options, but the loss of tight-end Noah Togia to the NFL puts even more stress on the returning receivers to make up for the lost production. Incoming freshman Zeriah Beason could contribute, but the deciding factor may be the eligibility of transfers Trey Low and Tre’Shaun Harrison.
Fortunately, Harrison is seeking a waiver which could end up being granted. If the NCAA approves his eligibility, the Florida State transfer may become a favorite target of Gebbia or Nolan. Regardless, either Bradford, Flemings, Taylor, or Beason must emerge to fill Hodgins and Togia’s shoes.
In the end, it could take a committee of receivers to replace Hodgins’ 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Deciding Factors: Emergent Leadership on Both Sides of the Ball
Starting the season strong could be the difference between making a bowl game and falling short. The momentum of early wins would be especially beneficial for a new quarterback seeking to become a leader in the locker room. If Gebbia winds up starting, the confidence gained from a quick start should energize the team, catapulting the Beavers to a stronger-than-expected season. The same would apply to Nolan, should he win the job.
Objectively, OSU has enough talent on both sides of the ball to make their first bowl trip since 2013. But a faltering start could dim those chances. Early losses could even spur Smith to make a quarterback change, triggering a game of Russian Roulette at quarterback, potentially dividing the team.
Apart from starting fast, the health and consistency of Jefferson will be vital to a continued Beavers turnaround. The shifty runner has the ability to compensate for OSU’s deficiencies at quarterback, and control the tempo and time of possession. By the same token, Rashad Jr. and the linebackers have the ability to keep games within reach, provided Oregon State can shore up its defensive line, which allowed 169.5 yards per game on the ground last season.
It’s a delicate balance, but if Smith and his staff overcome OSU’s weaknesses effectively, the Beavers may find themselves bowling in December.
Schedule Analysis: Key Nonconference & Conference Game
The Beavers begin the year with a difficult road contest in Stillwater at Oklahoma State’s Boone Pickens Stadium. The Thursday night opener presents a tremendous opportunity to make a splash on the national stage. A victory would launch Oregon State’s resurgence into hyper-drive, in what would arguably be its biggest win of the Pac-12 Era.
Assuming OSU falls in the opener as projected, the following week’s game at Reser Stadium vs. Colorado State becomes pivotal. A loss to the Mountain West school would all but destroy the Beavers’ bowl hopes. Capping off non-conference play, Oregon State hosts Portland State in another must-win contest.
Conference play presents several winnable matchups; most notably, home bouts with Washington State, UCLA, and Arizona. The road contest at Stanford offers upset potential, depending on how well the Cardinal bounces back from last season.
In the Civil War at Reser Stadium, OSU will look to play spoiler against Pac-12-favorite Oregon, which could be Playoff-bound. Whatever happens before that game, a statement victory over the Ducks would likely pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
Assuming OSU holds sway at home against Colorado State, Portland State, Washington State, UCLA, and Arizona, a bowl berth could come down to a road upset of Stanford in Palo Alto, or a much less likely shocker over Washington in Seattle.
All things considered, a second-straight five-win season, while falling just short of expectations, would keep the program on track for continued improvement in Corvallis.
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