Posted on August 9, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
As one of only two Pac-12 programs that managed to avoid a canceled game due to COVID, the Beavers got as much out of the 2020 season as could be expected.
The 2-5 record might not have met Jonathan Smith’s expectations, but the experience the year provided to Tristan Gebbia was invaluable.
And with an instant-classic victory over No. 9 Oregon in the fog, the Beavs’ glass is arguably half full.
But Jermar Jefferson is off to the NFL and Oregon State must find a way to replace his production on the ground. His seven touchdowns and 925 yards from scrimmage will be missed, putting the spotlight on Gebbia to step up to the plate.
The front runner for the starting role will be challenged by Colorado transfer Sam Noyer and last year’s backup Chance Nolan, but the experience gained during the 2020 season should bode well for redshirt junior.
Yet, after giving up more points per game in ’20 than the year prior, the OSU defense must play better for the program to reach its first bowl game since 2013.
Led by projected All-Conference center Nathan Eldridge, the Oregon State line holds down the fort for Gebbia and junior running back B.J. Baylor.
The strength up front provides sufficient time to operate, as Gebbia connects with Zeriah Beason, Tyjon Lindsey, and Trevon Bradford with consistency.
As defenses begin to gameplan against his primary options, Tre’Shaun Harrison and Georgia transfer Makiya Tongue emerge as fourth and fifth options.
Decision-making in the passing game proves to be the difference, as OSU improves its average of 10.7 first downs per game through the air.
The better passing game is taken advantage of by Baylor, as the heir apparent to replace Jefferson gashes defenses focused on defending the pass. Particularly in the red zone, the Oregon State line opens the door for Baylor, as the threat of play action keeps opponents honest.
The consistency along the line in the run and passing attack paves the way to a 3-0 start to the season, followed by victories over Washington State, Colorado, and California.
For the first time since 2013, the Beavs make a bowl game.
Worst Case Scenario
The loss of Jefferson’s production hampers an offense that proves to be over-reliant on the run. Despite a strong offensive line, Baylor and South Carolina transfer Deshaun Fenwick aren’t able to match the seventh-round draft pick’s production.
The duo struggle to consistently move the chains, as OSU’s average of 10 first downs on the ground per game is decreased.
But the real harm is done to the passing game.
With opponents not as concerned with the Beaver backfield, defensive coordinators focus on blitzing Gebbia to force poor throws. The increased pressure results in more sacks and interceptions, eventually leading to a change under center.
Forced to pick between Noyer and Nolan, the coaching staff gives both the opportunity, leading to a quarterback carousel that further limits the passing attack.
And with a defense that continues to give up 30 points or more per game, Oregon State ends the year with three wins.
What Should Happen
The Beavers’ quality along its offensive line should lead the way to an improvement of the 28.9 points per game scored during the 2020 season.
With an offense set to be more geared towards throwing the ball, the extra time given to the quarterback results in a better third down conversion percentage.
Converting at a rate of 40.4 percent last year, a stronger passing attack should lead to more short-yardage third downs, allowing the line to shine. Games are often won and lost on first and second down, as teams usually struggle in third-and-long situations.
Oregon State’s ability to pass the ball effectively early on in each possession should make for shorter third down plays, opening the playbook to more play action and resulting in more conversions.
By keeping drives alive on third down, the snowball effect produced from a strong front five leads to more touchdowns and a higher win total.
What Must Happen
After steady improvement from Year One to Year Two, the OSU defense arguably took a step back in Smith’s third season in Corvallis.
Giving up more points per game last year than in 2019, the unit must have its best season of the Smith Era.
Omar Speights and Avery Roberts lead the way in the linebacker corps, while Isaac Hodgins holds down the line. But the Oregon State defense has given up more than 400 yards per game in the last eight consecutive seasons.
Over those same eight seasons, the program has made a bowl game just once.
Until the Beaver defense takes the next step, a birth in the postseason will remain elusive.
There probably aren’t many linebacker tandems in the Pac-12 better than Speights and Roberts.
Leading the Conference of Champions in tackles last year with 69, Roberts projects to continue his dominance. And with 63 tackles in 2020, Speights wasn’t far behind. The duo lockdown any ball carriers that make it past the front four.
Add in Andrzej Hughes-Murray, and the trio combine to make one of the top linebackers corps in the Conference.
But as strong as the OSU linebackers are, its offensive line may be even stronger.
Anchored by Eldridge and several multi-year starters, tackle Joshua Gray sets the tone for what might be one of the top lines in the Pac-12.
Replacing Jefferson’s production is arguably Priority Number 1 for Smith and his staff. Issues on the defensive side of the ball are fixes that figure to take years, but keeping the rushing production at its 2020 levels is an immediate need.
Fenwick has been brought in from South Carolina to backup Baylor, and the two should find lanes to exploit behind a potent line.
Yet, Jefferson is a talent that’s not easily replaced. His speed and strength were the backbone of OSU’s offense, and some growing pains might occur in the early part of the season.
If Baylor comes within shouting distance of matching the same production, the trajectory of Oregon State’s season could be higher than some expect.
Winning on the road may be the difference between a bowl game and another losing season.
With games at Purdue, Washington State, California, and Colorado, the performances away from Corvallis must exceed expectations. And in order to reach bowl eligibility, the Beavers might need to win all four.
Getting the job done away from home begins and ends with leadership. The offensive line and linebackers set the tone on both sides of the ball, which should keep the team in check during tight battles.
With a chance to win all four games, steady leadership down the stretch could be the difference.
The season begins with a road test against Purdue in West Lafayette. The Big 10 opponent presents a challenge, and a loss wouldn’t be surprising.
Hawaii comes to Corvallis the following week, another potentially tough matchup, but one that the Beavers should handle.
A cupcake game against Idaho rounds out the nonconference season, making a 2-1 start to the year a fair expectation.
Pac-12 play begins with a road game at USC and a home game against Washington. Both figure to end in defeat.
A winnable matchup against Washington State in Pullman is next, followed by Utah in Corvallis. An 0-4 start to the conference season isn’t out of the question, but the Beavs should find a way to go 1-3 over the stretch.
Road games against California and Colorado present opportunities for victories over the next two weeks. Although each project to be hard-fought contests, finding a way to split the two is a reasonable goal.
The year ends with games against Stanford, Arizona State, and Oregon. Anything can happen, but all three are projected losses.
Barring any unforeseen upsets, five wins is arguably the ceiling for Oregon State in 2021. And if things go wrong, as few as three wins is possible.
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