Oregon State was one of the best surprises of 2021. 

In August 2021, the Beavers ranked 78th in preseason SP+ projections, expected to be about a half-point better than the average team (0.6 to be exact). In January 2022, after the dust had settled from the postseason and ESPN’s Bill Connelly released his final end-of-year SP+ rankings, the Beavers were sitting at 45th, only seven spots behind their in-state counterparts and viewed as roughly nine points better than the average team. 

The Beavers posted a scoring differential that would normally attach to an eight-win season, fielded one of the most efficient offenses in the Pac-12, played opportunistic defense, and took special teams seriously. 

In his first three seasons at the helm, coach Jonathan Smith had but a 9-22 record. The 7-6 mark the Beavers posted (losing the LA Bowl) was the first winning season the program had enjoyed since 2013. The 5-4 conference record was the best since 2012. Smith has a good scheme and is pretty well-respected by his peers, so there’s hope for continued improvement.

The defensive staff gets a bit of a shakeup with Trent Bray taking over as the full-time defensive coordinator this season—he was the interim guy after the program dismissed Tim Tiber in early November—and Anthony Perkins joins the fold as a new cornerbacks coach. That side of the ball, with some key names needing to be replaced, will likely be the swing piece in determining how the Beavers build on their 2021 success in 2022. 

“I’m sure there’s added confidence, but we’ll remind (the team) that this thing takes a lot of hard work,” Smith told reporters last week in previewing the spring period. “Each year is new. What took place before doesn’t guarantee you anything. I think if these guys keep working like they did in January and February, diving now into football in March and April, we’ll continue to improve. With the talent and depth we’ve got back, continuity in the scheme, we feel confident that we can put something special together.”

What worked in 2021

By nearly every objective measure, Oregon State had one of the best offensive lines in all of football. 

It was a group that entered the year expected to be an anchor point for the team, and they legitimately surpassed expectations. Led by redshirt senior center Nathan Eldridge, redshirt senior guard Nous Keobounnam, and redshirt junior tackle Brandon Kipper, the Beavers posted standout numbers across the board. Second-year starter Joshua Gray took a major step forward at tackle. Jake Levengood and Marco Brewer split time at guard as Levengood dealt with injuries for the season. 

Among qualified guys, Brewer was the Pac-12’s second-highest-graded linemen, per PFF. Eldridge was ninth-best. Kipper, Levengood, and Gray were all top-15. Keobounnam was the lowest-graded among the six regular guys, but still a top-30 linemen in the conference. 

You talk about running back BJ Baylor leading the conference in rushing, enjoying a breakout campaign after waiting his turn, or about quarterback Chance Nolan giving the team strong quarterback play, and you don’t want to take anything away from the individual growth those guys made but none of Oregon State’s offensive goodness is possible without an offensive line that just banged heads all year long. 

This was the best group in the country at opening up yards on the ground for the running game. Football Outsiders tracks line yards per carry, a metric developed to divvy up rushing success between a line and the back, and Oregon State’s 3.3 line YPC average led the country. No team had a better success rate in short-yardage situations than the Beavers, who converted third/fourth-and-2 or less 92% of the time, the only team in the country to break the 90% threshold. 

The list of teams who were stuffed at the line of scrimmage less often than Oregon State: Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State, Air Force. That’s it. Three teams who were all, at one point or another, in the College Football Playoff conversation.

Oregon State was excellent at giving Nolan protection as well. The Beavers ranked 15th nationally in allowed sack rate and 12th nationally in allowed sack rate on passing downs. Only two other quarterbacks in the conference (min. 150 dropbacks) had more time to throw than Nolan, per PFF. 

Add everything up and zoom out to see the big picture and you’re looking at the fifth-most efficient offense in college football by success rate. Oregon State’s 50.4% success rate on all plays was bested last season only by Ohio State, Coastal Carolina, Western Kentucky, and Mississippi State. That’s elite offensive company to be in. 

They weren’t the most explosive offensive outfit (which we’ll get to), but they crossed the opponent’s 40 on 55% of their drives last season (23rd-best) and averaged 4.8 points on those possessions that did (sixth-best). This was an offense that really minimized negative plays, and that points directly back to the play of the line up front. 

What didn’t work in 2021

This was a very gettable secondary. Isolate the discussion to obvious passing situations and the Beavers were getting beat more often than not. On passing downs, Oregon State allowed a success rate that ranked 99th nationally. On third downs, opponents converted 50.3% of the time, which ranked 127th. 

And that was all despite a group that was pretty opportunistic. Oregon State exceeded its expected takeaways just a tad thanks to the fact it was a little better than should be expected at getting two hands on passes instead of just one. A team can expect to intercept around 20% of its passes defended; Oregon State turned over 23.4%. The secondary created havoc plays (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, passes defended) at a top-25 rate nationally. 

It was just a little too boom or bust. The pass defense gave up 20-yard completions on 9.5% of all pass plays faced, which ranked 48th. Not bad, but not great, and paired with a run defense that was also a little more leaky than you’d hope for, you get a unit that ranks 79th in allowed success rate. 

A go-to havoc-creator emerging would be a big deal. (So, in that way Oregon State is pretty much like 90% of college football defenses. Everyone could use one of those guys.) After a 2019 season that saw Oregon State produce more than seven tackles for loss a game, they were below four in 2020 and then just a bit above four in 2021. 

Linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (22.5 TFLs in 2019) has proven pretty tough to replace. He had nearly two a game his last year with the program. No one has averaged even one a game since. Andrzej Hughes-Murray was the closest thing to being that guy for Oregon State last season—six sacks, 8.5 TFLs—but he has exhausted his eligibility.

One of those areas has to be strong in 2022 for Oregon State to take the next step. It can’t be so-so in both regards or it’ll once again find itself in a bunch of close games. Six were decided last season by 10 points or fewer. If you want to get closer to, say, nine wins, then getting better play from either ends of the defense would give Nolan and the offense a little wider margin for error. 

What’s coming back

Overall, Oregon State is returning 73% of its production from last year’s team, the fourth-most among Pac-12 teams and 40th nationally, according to Connelly’s SP+ calculations. 

That’s a good number, and a solid starting point, but losses come from key pieces. 

Baylor is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,336 yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago (5.9 yards per carry). Deshaun Fenwick (448 yards, four TDs, 5.7 YPC) and Trey Lowe (359 yards, 6.4 YPC) are back, however.

Trevon Bradford is the big name at wideout to depart. He caught a team-best 42 ball for 631 yards and five scores a season ago. Bradford was Nolan’s go-to receiver, as no one else caught more than 29 passes on the year. But Tre’Shaun Harrison (401 yards, 29 receptions) and Tyjon Lindsey are back for senior seasons, with Lindsey potentially able to be a significant playmaker outside with some health. Zeriah Beason has 36 receptions for 384 yards in his first 20 games with the program; he’s a breakout candidate for the new year. 

On defense, 16 of the top 20 tacklers from last season return, including seven of the top 10. Avery Roberts, the Beaver inside ‘backer who led the team in tackles for three straight seasons, has moved on to the NFL Draft. That’s a sizable hole to fill. His 128 tackles last season led all Pac-12 defenders, capping a career that’ll see him go down as one of the best transfer players in program history. 

Roberts had his knocks (coverage the main one) but he was no doubt Oregon State’s most important defender. The Beavers will need Omar Speights (89 tackles) to take yet another step in his game to fill that void. 

Every defensive back of significance returns. Jaydon Grant (71 tackles, six PBUs, two forced fumbles) seems likely to move to safety after playing out of position as a nickelback last year. Alton Julian and Kitan Oladapo were the team’s top two highest-graded defensive backs last season, and if Julian (torn ACL midway though the season) returns to full health in time to begin the year, the Beavers could have a nice three-man rotation at the safety spot. Alex Austin (47 tackles, seven PBUs) has turned into the team’s strongest cover corner after three years and 20 straight appearances.

Oregon State is also expecting defensive lineman Isaac Hodgins to be back after an injury in fall camp last year cost him the entire 2021 season. He was a preseason all-conference guy and boasts 30 career starts over his first three seasons with the program. 

The driver of everything, though, is Nolan. 

After three starts in 2020, the former junior college quarterback emerged as the clear-cut guy for Smith’s offense. In 2021, Nolan completed 64% of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 2,677 yards against 10 interceptions. He was the Pac-12’s third-best quarterback by QBR, behind Utah’s Cam Rising and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. A season-long 70.9 QBR was the best mark by a qualified Oregon State quarterback since 2013. 

Eldridge and Keobounnam graduate on the offensive line, but Kipper, Levengood, Brewer, and Gray are all back. There’s enough there, if Oregon State gets even play from the center spot, to field another strong unit. 

With 286 rushing yards, he provided Oregon State with a dual-threat kind of quarterback it hasn’t really had for some time. That’s an element that could theoretically give the coaching staff a way to help its offensive line out if they feel it needs some time to mesh with new pieces. 

Nolan will need to show a little more week-to-week consistency in 2022. Against Hawaii, Idaho, and USC, he threw for 690 yards and nine scores, completed 75% of his throws, and was only intercepted twice. Against the Washington schools the following two weeks, he was under 50% both outings, was held without a touchdown pass, and was intercepted three times. Then he threw for 208 yards and two scores in a clean performance against Utah, then he was back down again with two sup-60% performances against Cal and Colorado with three touchdowns and three picks. 

He was excellent on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but will look to show a bit better decision-making on the intermediate-to-deep throws next season.

What’s on the schedule

  • vs. Boise State (Sept. 3)
  • at Fresno State (Sept. 10)
  • vs. Montana State (Sept. 17 in Portland)
  • vs. USC (Sept. 24)
  • at Utah (Oct. 1)
  • at Stanford (Oct. 8)
  • vs. Washington State (Oct. 15)
  • vs. Colorado (Oct. 22)
  • at Washington (Nov. 5)
  • vs. California (Nov. 12)
  • at Arizona State (Nov. 19)
  • vs. Oregon (Nov. 25)

Eight games in eight weeks is going to be a grind to get through to open the season.

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • Cal (Sunday, March 6)
  • Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
  • Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 20)