"dvieira" from "Addicted to Quack" raised a good question recently, that given the success of Oregon State's program over the last decade, and given how many players the Beavers have put into the NFL, is it time to put to bed this notion of the "over achieving Beavers"? Without anything more than a couple of Sun Bowl victory during Mike Riley's tenure, and given the talent available, has Mike Riley in fact UNDER-achieved? Is it time to start thinking "Holiday Bowl or Bust" instead of "Sun Bowl or Bust"?
The status of "over achieving" has been bestowed on the Beavers based on their ultimate success relative to the reasonable expectations going in. That assessment is in turn based on the perceived talent level. By perceived talent level, we are talking about the ratings of the recruits, and the rating of pro potential of incoming players, as determined by supposed experts, and compared to the assessment of other teams' players by the same experts.
The degree of expertise of the scouting services, and to a lesser degree, pro scouts & personnel managers, is open for debate, but these people do spend a great deal of study on the matter, and they, collectively, do a good enough job of it to get paid rather well for it. And because they won't continue to get paid if they aren't reasonably accurate, they are well motivated to get it right.
Working from that premise, the continued relatively low ranking of the Beavers' recruiting classes, which does not align, relative to the majority of other programs, with results or professional player production, suggests that, at least in terms of player development, Coach Mike Riley, whom Buster Sports' Nick Daschel rates as the second best coach in the Pac-10, and his staff are among the best, and are still over-achieving.
But that point leads to two related places where the Beavers could be considered to be under-achieving. The continuing inability to recruit numerous players that don't need quite as much development contributed to the persistent problem of slow starts, the well publicized three year run of starting the season 2-3.
The non-conference losses don't matter so much in terms of OSU's bowl prospects unless the Beavers are good enough to run the table in the PAC-10. This is because no one but USC is very likely to go to a BCS bowl other than the Rose Bowl unless they win all their non-conference games, as the Beavers did when they went to the Fiesta Bowl. The Rose Bowl, and the rest of the bowls the PAC-10 has a tie in with for that matter, are determined first by the conference finish, with the relative attractiveness of teams and where they have been recently acting mostly as tie-breakers.
But in two of those three 2-3 starts, the losses that cost a Holiday Bowl trip were conference losses in September. And as everyone recalls, the loss to Stanford last August was the one that stood in the way of a Rose Bowl trip, since a win in that one would have rendered the outcome of the Civil War meaningless in the conference race.
A combination of more manageable scheduling this season, and a changed approach to pre-season preparation is an attempt to address the slow start problem. It's also essential in a year that not only features a very difficult road schedule, but also will see half the home dates used before October. Another 2-3 start would spell a year in which the Las Vegas and Emerald Bowls could even be very difficult goals to reach. So credit Coach Riley and staff for an adjustment to address the slow start issue.
That leaves the subject of recruiting. Which can be a mine-field. In recent years, careful recruiting of character and academic ability to compliment athletic ability has clearly been a focus. In Corvallis at some times in the more distant past, and certainly elsewhere to this day, the side-effects of the problems that disregarding these factors have caught up with, and then over-whelmed, teams whose' recruiting disregards local talent and player type in pursuit of wins at any cost.
Riley admits to looking for, and benefiting from those one, two, and three-star players who signed letters of intent with Oregon State because they were totally ignored by the likes of USC or UCLA, and started looking like blue-chippers when they became juniors or seniors. The winning, and the resulting national exposure, does attract better talent. That 'system' is only now firmly in place.
"I didn't really understand, until about two years ago, what that time really means,'' said Riley recently. "What it really means to have seniors become leaders, because in order to do that, it takes time to get all that in place.''
And some of the blue-chip athletes aren't going to "fit", and therefore wouldn't succeed. Either they fit, or they don't, and as Riley explains, often times the players aren't shy about telling us who doesn't deserve to put on that OSU jersey.
"They (the older players) get it, and therefore they are part of the teaching models, and they pass it on to the younger guys,'' Riley says.
But not all of the 4 and 5 star recruits are shaky citizens or weak students. So the question remains, why, given the bowl trips and the number of NFL prospects produced, is Oregon State continuing to struggle to attract a larger share of the players that truly can go wherever they feel they will have the best chance at success?
And while the production of numerous players capable of playing in the NFL, and more in other professional leagues, speaks to the strength of the Beavers' best players, it doesn't address the quality of the team's depth. The players that set the table so that the difference makers can turn Sun Bowl and Emerald Bowl teams into Rose Bowl and Holiday Bowl squads.
Certainly perception vs. fact is a factor, but recent and continuing success and renovation of facilities should be helping in that area by now. And the increased national attention being one of only ten teams to string together three consecutive top 25 teams has brought will help too.
So the answer to the question of over-achieving vs. under will more likely be answered in the next couple of years than the last few. If Oregon State reloads, as it appears they have been able to do, with the likes of Marcus Wheaton and Michael Philipp, and the Beavers continue to climb in the rankings, then the over-achieving tag will go away, and the under-achieving one will stay away. If not, then it may signal a need to further revisit the recruiting game plan, similar to how the pre-season preparation plan was adjusted going into this inning.
An interesting sidenote is that the recruit rating services who listed Philipp as such a top prospect did so at the guard position, even though, as Philipp noted, "I've never played guard (in a game) in my life." Maybe the ratings aren't so well informed after all?
Adjusting perception, however, is to a degree beyond the control of the coaching staff. TV presence is a big factor, and with two more years on the current contract, don't count on Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis to be able to work many miracles. Better alternative delivery, such as web-availability is more plausible, and should be something worked on right away.
Next might be some creative marketing, and also some market research. The success of the "I am Orange" campaign will be measured not only by increased ticket sales and contributions, but improved actual attendance. With record attendance (four of the Beavers' five largest announced home crowd's ever were the last four home games of the 2008 season), that might not seem to be an issue, but until the games against "lesser" opponents are indistinguishable from the marquis matchups, then the devotion to the program won't equal that of the upper echelon teams, and the push to continue to expand and improve the program will lag. And that's something hard for prospects to miss when they look around Reser, after looking around at Texas, and quickly forgotten when they check out Ohio State.
Oregon State is still one of the smallest stadiums, in one of the smallest markets, of the consistent top-25 teams. And on one of the tightest budgets as a result. That will continue to be a factor in getting those four and five star recruits, because when talking to a top high school junior, the conversation is about not only where the program is, and will be in a couple of years, but often about where it will be in five or six years, by the time that player completes a red-shirt season, and a career.
While Riley and staff are well established at the moment, no one can be sure today who will be on the staff in 2015. As long as DeCarolis is doing the hiring, it seems reasonable that if Riley or a successful assistant need to be replaced, a top quality candidate will be found.
But recruits, especially those from outside Oregon, aren't that familiar with what Bobby D has done. They look at teams playing 7-8 games in front of crowds ranging from 75,000 to upwards of 100,000, and do the math. And Oregon State comes up clearly short.
A recruit knows Joe Paterno may retire at Penn State, and coaches like Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll may be lured from Florida and USC respectively by contracts that pay more than the entire Oregon State football budget. But with the dollars those programs bring in, and the number of supporters' resources they can marshall, there is no doubt that Penn State, Florida, and USC can attract another top tier coach if and when it becomes necessary. But the nagging question of whether there is another Craig Fertig in their future if they come to Corvallis remains.
Riley and his staff enjoy the support in Corvallis and around the state that a combination of winning and character warrant, so it will be awhile before the over-achieving vs. under-achieving (or some of both) question becomes critical. But clearly it is a question people inside and outside of the program will be watching for an answer to while they watch the Beavers the next couple seasons. The more that are watching might make a difference in the answer.