Pinpointing a surprise, breakout team typically starts with a base formula.
Familiarity with a coaching staff and its scheme is important. Veteran players returning certainly helps — particularly if some of those players have proven to be high-impact performers. A demonstrated ability to improve is an indicator, and so is a measurably narrow gap between said potential breakout team and those opponents to which it’s trying to bypass.
The Pac-12 saw such a formula produce historic results in 2016, when Colorado climbed from the cellar of the Pac-12 South to the conference championship game. In 2017, a new squad boasts the pieces to make its own climb from the bottom to contention in Oregon State.
“Colorado, they were in the same boat as us a couple years ago,” Beavers running back Ryan Nall said at last month’s Pac-12 media days. “From not winning any Pac-12 games [in 2014] or only winning a couple…I definitely see [us] doing that. I have confidence in our team, I trust the process with coach [Gary Andersen] and I think we’re going to have a successful year.”
The parallel certainly exists, as Colorado endured a 2-10 finish in 2014, which included an 0-9 mark in Pac-12 play. Oregon State struggled through identical records in 2015 — though in a coincidental twist, Colorado’s sole Pac-12 win that season came over the Beavers in Reser Stadium, 17-13.
It was a trying introductory for Andersen, to be sure. But, if he coaches Oregon State to a surprising 2017 campaign, it would fit his career arc; after all, he came to Corvallis under surprising circumstances.
Andersen arrived at Oregon State after two successful seasons with Wisconsin, in which the Badgers went 19-7 under his guidance and played for the Big Ten championship in 2014. Much of his coaching career prior had been spent in the West, though, so Mike Riley’s departure for Nebraska in December 2014 presented an opportunity to return.
Like Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, Andersen demonstrated a knack for turning programs around before he came to the Pac-12, having done so in the old Western Athletic Conference at Utah State. The Aggies went 12 years before Andersen’s arrival without a winning season, the worst coming in a 2-10 mark in 2007.
By 2012, Utah State was a conference champion and, at 11-2, ranked in the top 25.
So, when Nall says the Beavers “trust the process” Andersen and his staff have laid out, there’s justification for their confidence. And it’s not just past results at other programs that give Oregon State reason for excitement, as Year 2 of the current program showed tangible progress on the field.
“Our kids believe they have the physical ability and toughness to impact games now,” Andersen said. “That was a big step for us I think we took last year, and in not just in the games we won, [but also] some of the close games that we lost.”
Like Colorado in 2015, Oregon State played in plenty of close games during the 2016 campaign. The Beavers lost three games by seven points or points; four by 11 or less. For the 15 starters back at Oregon State for 2017 — making it one of the most veteran lineups in the Pac-12 — those close losses provide inspiration in the offseason.
“So many games were so close, but we couldn’t quite pull away,” Nall said. “For example, against Washington State…we were up a couple touchdowns, and we let them come back. They ended up winning. Those are the kind of things that stay with me.
“I don’t necessarily like to harp on the negatives, but those are the kind of things that bug me,” he added. “I wish we could change it, but we can’t. So we have to learn from it.”
Perhaps the most important step Oregon State to close out those games is improvement offensively. In one-score defeats against Minnesota and Utah, the Beavers mustered just 23 and 14 points. Having a healthy Nall carrying the bulk of the load for the rushing attack will help.
Nall was excellent at points in 2016, including during the Beavers’ two-game winning streak to close out the season.
A Pacific Northwest native who grew up a Seahawks fan, Nall said he admired Shaun Alexander and Marshawn Lynch. Of Lynch, Nall made the comparison: “He’s Beast Mode for a reason — and I like to think I have some Beast Mode in me.”
Improvement in the passing game is vital, too. Jake Luton’s ascent to the clear No. 1, after Oregon State endured two years of musical chairs behind center, sets the Beavers offense on the right course heading into 2017.
Oregon State replicating Colorado’s turnaround from four wins to Pac-12 Championship Game might be difficult to pull off, simply because the Beavers play in the conference’s more top-heavy division. The North has a pair of Top 15-ranked teams in Washington and Stanford, while OSU rival Oregon has been a national powerhouse for nearly two decades, despite the Ducks’ descent to last-place a season ago.
But with a similar formula of veteran talent, some important lessons learned in the hard times and a more familiar system in place, don’t be surprised if Oregon State is the closest thing the 2017 Pac-12 has to 2016 Colorado.