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Pac-12 football preview: Riley, Mannion appear to have OSU primed for bowl run

First Published      Last Updated Aug 20 2014 09:25 am

The rational Utah fan has to have a healthy respect for Mike Riley.

This is a guy who, in his second stint in Corvallis, has taken the state's second-banana school and won seven or more games in eight of 11 seasons.

While locally we debate whether a seemingly improved Utah team is capable of seven wins, it seems almost a given that with as many as eight returning starters and a potential first-round draft pick at quarterback, Riley will squeeze seven out of the Pac-12 North.

And amazingly, he's kept up with the Joneses without changing all that much.

Unlike Utah and most other schools, Riley isn't trying to play faster and spread the field more than anybody else.

They're "a little bit of a dinosaur," he told reporters at Pac-12 Media Days in late July. "We still huddle. But we try to put pressure on the defenses by changing personnel groups and doing some stuff like that."

This year's Beavers have some lingering questions — offensive line health, the departure of Brandin Cooks, the defense (see below) — but in Sean Mannion they have a dark horse Heisman candidate who, if he replicates his 2013 season, could wind up as high as fifth among the NCAA's all-time passing leaders (surpassing BYU's Ty Detmer) and be remembered as one of the conference's greats.

2013 IN REVIEW • 7-6, 4-5 Pac-12

RETURNING STARTERS • 14 total (8 offense, 6 defense)

TOP RETURNING PLAYER • It was a tale of two halves for Sean Mannion last season. Without question, he made a huge leap forward from freshman and sophomore seasons in which he passed for as many touchdowns (31) as interceptions, but through the first seven games he had 2,992 yards, 29 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his final six: 1,670, 8 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. That was no accident, as the Beavers faced a back-loaded schedule, but if the big-armed senior wants more than gaudy stats, he'll have to step his game up against an elite defense or two.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK • The Beavers were 94th in total defense last season, allowing 428 yards per game, and gone are both defensive tackles and one end. On the bright side, touted junior college transfer tackle Kyle Peko has been granted temporary eligibility by the NCAA while Oregon State awaits his paperwork.

SCHEDULE OUTLOOK • They dodge UCLA. Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State isn't exactly an out-of-conference murderer's row. They're on the road against No. 15 USC, No. 11 Stanford and No. 25 Washington, however, and they host No. 19 Arizona State and (of course) No. 3 Oregon. Five of their final nine games come against ranked teams, and they end with three straight.

— Matthew Piper


Twitter: @matthew_piper