Looking ahead to this fall's Oregon State football season can be daunting, especially given the run of 11 games in 11 weeks. But it actually breaks down into 4 more digestible quarters, the non-conference games, the favorable beginning to the conference campaign in early October, the gauntlet of three Pac-12 North games, and the stretch drive.
We'll start with an assessment of the issues in the non-conference portion of the schedule, which will occupy the month of September.
Minnesota A Major Opportunity
Oregon State begins with a trip to Minneapolis, and a game at Minnesota. And it starts really early, on the Thursday before the Labor Day weekend. Barring late changes, it's the only game not on a Saturday this season, which will be a real change from recent seasons.
That's a good thing though for Oregon State, as it will be an evening game, not an early morning start, body clock wise, which has been a recipe for disaster for the Beavers, and a lot of teams from the west.
The Gophers are an early 4 ½ point favorite, and since they are the home team in a matchup that crosses multiple time zones, which is probably good for a little more than the 3 points home field is normally worth in setting lines.
Minnesota went 6-7, but just 2-6 in the B1G Ten (14), and finished 5th in the West, and was one of the 3 teams to get into a bowl game with a 5-7 record. The Gophers went on to beat Central Michigan 21-14 in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
This will be the first full season for Minnesota under Tracy Claeys, who took over when Jerry Kill retired for health reasons midseason last fall, after having been a Kill assistant at various times for a cumulative 21 years, including at Minnesota since 2010.
The Gophers will be changing up schemes on both offense and defense this fall, but their bread and butter, and the factor that will determine how successful they will be, is their running game, comprised of a large stable of backs, and led by sophomore Shannon Brooks and red-shirt soph. Rodney Smith, who combined for 1,379 yards and 9 TDs last season.
Minnesota also has a senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner, and an infusion of JC experience into both lines.
It's not a recipe for a Minnesota run-away, but it's also the kind of physical, experienced team that will be hard for Oregon State to pull away from. As such, the line seems reasonable.
It's also one of the two most winnable road games on Oregon State's schedule, and a "swing" game that could go either way, making it one of the biggest games of the year for the Beavers, because of the impact a win could have.
And that will be even more important for a team coming in having lost 9 in a row, with a lot of the same players, but different coordinators, on both sides of the line.
An Early Bye, And The Only Auto-W
The combination of a Thursday opener and a bye in the second week makes the second game, against Idaho State, a must-win game. The Bengals are an FCS opponent, and in recent times, not a particularly strong one, with the one exception being 2014, when they went 8-4, for the only winning season in Pocatello since 2003.
Idaho State went 2-9 last year, with only 1 win at the FBS level, and 1-7 in the Big Sky. All the losses except 1 were by more than 2 touchdowns, with their notable win a 37-31 upset of North Dakota, which went 7-4.
With the week 2 bye, it's the latest home opener in the conference, and one of the latest in FBS. The Bengals will have already played not only Division II Simon Fraser, but more recently, at Colorado the Saturday before, and so we should have a real good idea of where Idaho State stands, given the very comparable (and well known) state of the Buffs' program to the Beavers.
Oregon State will be favored, possibly heavily, for good reason. But at least until late in the season, and only if the Beavers exceed expectations and some conference opponent struggles substantially more than expected, it will be the only time they will be favored.
The 10 days prep time will give the Beavers extra time to make adjustments for what happened in the opener, tune new schemes, and incorporate the new players in the system.
Simply put, there will be no reason to not win this one, and no excuse if the Beavers don't take care of business.
If game 2 should be a walk-over against a team from Idaho, the next week will be anything but, when Boise State comes rolling into Reser.
There's always debate about the strength of their conference, but the fact is the Broncos are one of the handful of Gang of 5 non-Power 5 Conference members who are legitimately amongst the country's best programs.
Boise State has won at least 8 games for 17 years in a row, including winning 3 BCS/NY6 bowls in the last 10 years, most recently the Fiesta Bowl 38-30 over Arizona 2 years ago. Oregon State did hand the Broncos their only post-season loss in the last 7 years when the Beavers beat them 38-23 in the 2013 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Last year was a relatively down year in Boise though, as the Broncos only went 9-4, though they did beat Washington in Seattle, and won the Poinsettia Bowl 55-7 over Northern Illinois.
Similar to the Idaho State game, Oregon State will have a good idea of what to expect from Boise State, given that in their prior game, which also falls on the Beaver bye week, the Broncos will have hosted Washington State, providing a great scouting opportunity.
Boise State will have a new quarterback with a familiar name, Brett Rypien, after last year's initial starter Ryan Finley, whose season ended with a broken ankle in game 3, opted to use the graduate transfer rule to go cross country to North Carolina State.
All Rypien did over the Broncos' final 10 games was become the All-Mountain West first team quarterback as a true freshman.
With the beginning of the Pac-12 season (which we will look at in our next quarter preview installment), and a trip to Colorado, just over the horizon in October, this will be Oregon State's toughest pre-season test.
Overall, a 2-1 non-conference campaign is probably the best Beaver fans can reasonably expect, and would mean pulling off an upset. But its not an unreasonable goal, and an important one to reach if year 2 of the Gary Andersen era is to get off to a good start, and ultimately be an improvement over last season's 2-10 fiasco.