After three straight third-place finishes in the Pac-10, Oregon State moved up to second last season.
Of course, the Beavers shared that spot with three other teams. Still, that could be seen as progress. This season, the Beavers aim to take the next step and win their first Pac-10 title since 2000.
They have the big-play ability of the Rodgers brothers, a stout offensive line and a stubborn run defense. But they will need efficient play from a first-time starting quarterback and much more production from the pass rush and the pass defense.
THE SCHEME: The Beavers use a pro set, with multiple looks and formations.
STAR POWER: Explosive junior RB Jacquizz Rodgers is seeking to reach 1,000 rushing yards for the third time. He has 2,693 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns in his career. He's a good receiver, too, with 78 receptions last season. One of the nation's premier big-play threats, Rodgers had 19 plays that covered at least 20 yards in '09.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman QB Cody Vaz may not play much. In fact, the Beavers hope he won't. But after Peter Lalich was dismissed from the team in May, Vaz moved into the backup job. He could end up playing a big role for the Beavers, who are breaking in a new starting quarterback.
STRONGEST AREA: Rodgers' presence ensures that running back is a position of strength. But the Beavers also have excellent depth. Backup Ryan McCants has recovered from an injury that slowed him last season. And in a pinch, WR James Rodgers -- Jacquizz's brother -- could play there. He was the Beavers' second-leading rusher in '09.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Quarterback definitely is cause for concern. All-Pac-10 pick Sean Canfield completed his career and the NCAA denied Lyle Moevao another year of eligibility. In the spring, Lalich -- a transfer from Virginia -- left the team after an alcohol-related arrest. That leaves sophomore Ryan Katz as the only quarterback on the roster with college playing experience. Katz attempted 27 passes last season.
THE SCHEME: The Beavers have a 4-3 base, and last season, they ranked 25th in the nation against the run. Coordinator Mark Banker has a good reputation for getting the most out of his talent.
STAR POWER: All-Pac-10 T Stephen Paea has overwhelming strength yet is surprisingly nimble for a 311-pounder. He uses all of his assets for maximum production. Last season, he posted 43 tackles, with 8.5 going for lost yardage. He also forced four fumbles.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Fingers are crossed that 6-foot-5, 270-pound Dominic Glover, a junior college transfer, can boost the Beavers' pass rush or at least provide solid depth at end. If he plays well, there will be an added bonus in that it will rankle those at archrival Oregon. Glover started his career with Oregon, was injured in '08, then transferred to junior college.
STRONGEST AREA: Running against the Beavers' interior will be a chore. Paea, one of the best in the country at his position, looms there. Brennan Olander, a high school wrestling champion, also is a returning starter at tackle. He had eight tackles for loss in '09.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: An outside pass rush was almost non-existent last season. Ends combined for just six sacks, half by Gabe Miller. The Beavers also have little depth on the edge. To get a boost, they will look to Glover, who played tackle at Oregon, and redshirt freshman John Braun, who was moved from the offensive line. It didn't help that projected starter Matt LaGrone, a senior, left the team before spring practice to move back to Reno, Nev., to be with his wife and two children.
Like most Pac-10 teams, the Beavers are good in the kicking game. James Rodgers is among the country's best return men, having averaged 11.6 yards on punt returns and 23.3 on kickoff returns last season. A year ago, Justin Kahut converted 22-of-27 field goal attempts. He was 12-of-13 from inside 40 yards and connected from 50 yards out. P Johnny Hekker had a respectable 40.1-yard average and killed 19 inside the opponents' 20. The Beavers typically are strong in coverage, too.
Oregon State has a reputation for starting slow and getting better as the season progresses. Part of that is because the Beavers typically have a treacherous non-conference schedule. This season is no different. Making good on a promise to the Rodgers brothers that they would play a game in their home state of Texas, Oregon State opens against TCU at Cowboys Stadium. Three weeks later, the Beavers travel to face Boise State. That's two road games against veteran teams that were a combined 26-1 last season. Plus, four of the first six games are away from home. Oregon State gets a break in Pac-10 play with home games against Oregon and USC. The Beavers have posted upset victories the past two times USC has visited Corvallis.
In each of the past five seasons Oregon State has been good (at least eight wins) but never good enough to win a championship. That trend figures to continue. On the plus side, the Beavers have some of the nation's premier players in Jacquizz Rodgers, James Rodgers and Paea, a good receiving corps and a solid offensive line; four of the five starting linemen are upperclassmen, but the best, LT Michael Philipp, is a sophomore. But an inexperienced starter at quarterback raises questions. So does Oregon State's passive pass rush, which offered no help to a secondary that ranked 84th in the nation and allowed 23 touchdown passes a year ago. Under Mike Riley, Oregon State has typically started slow, improved, posted a key upset or two and finished in the upper half of the Pac-10 standings. That's a reasonable expectation this season, too.