As an Oregon State Beavers fan, it's been hard to stay positive.
2008 and 2009 both ended in disappointment, as our down-south rivals ended strong Rose Bowl bids. Then 2010 was filled with ups (such as beating USC) and downs (such as losing to Washington State). Topping things off was a 2011 record of 3-9, the Beavers' worst since 1996.
Despite the bleak outlook, there are signs of sunshine in OSU's future.
2011 standouts, Sean Mannion (QB) and Scott Crichton (DE), both received freshman All-American honors.
Heading into 2012, the Beavers might see their best recruiting class in a long time. They have 22 commitments in total, including two defensive 4-star recruits.
Looking at the pieces in place, the Beavs have a good shot at returning to Pac 12 dominance, but there's still work to be done.
2011 was very telling of Mike Riley and the OSU team he's assembling. There's still a lot of holes to be filled.
Return to Fundamentals
Despite the fundamentally sound teams of football seasons past, the 2011 Beavers played some of the ugliest football I've ever seen.
Mike Riley is usually a general about this kind of stuff, but nothing stuck in 2011.
One of the biggest fundamental flaws was tackling. This was incredibly evident during the 35-0 Wisconsin shellacking. Then there was the first half of the Utah game which might have been the worst I've ever seen.
Tackling caused the OSU defense woes all season long. It seemed everyone was leaping through the air, trying to force momentum and tackle from over the top. Instead, they should have let their big bodies create their own force and drive into ball-carriers.
In a conference that features diverse and athletic offenses, you have to play sound defense. The first part of that is learning the fundamentals and putting it to practice. If the Beavers want to return to being a defensive powerhouse they're going to have to revisit the roots of good play.
The second fundamental flaw in OSU's play has been ball control.
In the Beavers' 12 games they fumbled the ball 25 times. They had three fumbles in half of their games, and their only game without a fumble was against Washington State. To put it in perspective, opponents fumbled the ball a mere 16 times against the Beavers. Only two opponents saw three fumbles, while four teams saw zero.
In his time as a Beaver, Jacquizz Rodgers never once fumbled the ball. The fact that OSU only went one game without a fumble is inexcusable.
Then there's the 18 interceptions Sean Mannion threw. From what I saw, they were very rarely deep passes. Most of the time, his interceptions came on short passes down the middle of the field. Mannion is still young, but he needs to read defensive schemes better, especially those over the line.
Turnovers were a huge part of OSU's offensive woes in 2011. The fumbles are a huge eyesore, and they definitely need to learn better ball control. The interceptions weren't pretty, but as Mannion matures he'll get better.
If Riley can get his defense to make their tackles, and get the offense to hold onto the ball, we'll be looking at an incredibly different team in 2012. It seems simple, but fundamentals can be the difference between a great football team and a bad one.
Continue to Develop That Offense
No one knew what kind of offense the Beavers would have without Jacquizz Rodgers. It was predicted to be a much poorer one. Too be honest, I was pleasantly surprised last season.
The Beavers saw great development from their young wide receiving corps. Marcus Wheaton led the team with 78 catches for 986 yards (sixth in the Pac-12). Freshman Brandin Cooks had 31 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns.
The greatest improvement was seen at quarterback. After the continuing saga of Ryan Katz, freshman Mannion was eventually thrust into the starter's role. In his inaugural season, he threw for 3,332 yards (fifth) accumulating 16 touchdowns.
The biggest enigma facing Oregon State seems to be running back. In 2011, it was rush by committee, as the Beavers rotated through Malcolm Agnew, Jovan Stevenson and Terron Ward.
Over the last two seasons, Riley has recruited four 3-star tailbacks.
I'm not saying OSU needs to return to the days of Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rogers, but they need to work better to establish the run.
The Beavers have a great young quarterback and a wide receiving duo on the rise. In order to bring the offense to its full potential they need to be able to rush a consistent 80 to 100 yards per game in order to better establish option plays and take some pressure off Mannion.
Win the Games That Count
There are two parts to this.
First, are the out-of-conference games. OSU is a good place to play football, and they've proven time and time again that they should never be discounted. Yet, when it comes time to show off on the national stage, the Beavers continuously fall short.
Since Mike Riley took over in 2003, the Beavers are 18-14 in out-of-conference play. Not too bad. When it comes to ranked teams, that record becomes 1-7.
It's easy to beat the Portland States of the world, and OSU can do that year in and year out. Beating teams like Wisconsin, Boise State, Penn State—that's where respect is won.
Beating out-of-conference teams won't win the Beavs a Pac-12 title. However, it will instill confidence and command respect. In other words, if OSU plays like a team that should be feared, the dominoes will fall in place.
The other piece of the "games that count" puzzle is beating the University of Oregon Ducks.
The Civil War is one of the biggest events in Oregon, and over the last few years the whole world's been watching.
The 2008-2009 Civil Wars were determinants for who went to the Rose Bowl. The 2010 game was the final hurdle for the Ducks before heading to the BSC National Championship Game. 2011's Pac-12 North champion would have been Stanford if not for the Civil War.
No matter how important the last four Civil Wars have been, Oregon Sate continues to come up short.
The biggest statement the Beavers can make is getting over the Civil War roadblock and prove they're the best team in Oregon.
I have been at OSU for four years now, and I've seen a lot of great football. I've also seen a lot of bad football, with last year's team taking the cake.
I believe in the Beavers and what they can do.
I think Riley has great coaching acumen. I think Mannion could be one of the best quarterbacks in Beaver history. I think Wheaton could make folks forget about Sammy Straughter.
None of that matters if they can't fix the little things. If the OSU Beavers want to become a powerhouse, they need to reexamine what they're doing wrong and do what it takes to fix it.