Mea culpa: My predictions aren’t always the best. A couple of years ago, in a NFL fantasy-football league, I had a side bet that Felix Jones was going to score 10 touchdowns for Dallas. It was going to be his breakout year.
He scored one.
I’m going to do better on this one. After drowning myself in Pac-12 fall camps for most of the past month, I see a team out there that’s going to be far better than most people are foreseeing.
It’s Oregon State. The Beavers were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North by media, and indeed, that’s where I had them in a post-spring roundup. But after seeing them in practice last week, and, more than that, coming to my senses on some things, I have them doing a lot better.
Are they going to challenge Oregon for the title in the division? No. But are they good enough to play with just about anybody else among that six? Absolutely. (For all you Washington and WSU fans who might be scoffing, remember that this is the outfit that clocked your team by 17 and 23 points, respectively, last year.)
— The quarterback, Sean Mannion, threw 18 interceptions last year, a number that will inevitably go down (meanwhile, he was good enough complete 64 percent of his passes).
— OSU has an above-average receiver corps led by Markus Wheaton.
— Defensive ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton were productive as freshmen a year ago — a combined 20 tackles for loss — and they’re bigger and primed for even better seasons.
— OSU is proven at cornerback, with an all-star candidate in Jordan Poyer.
— A year ago, the Beavers were minus-8 in turnover margin. As magazine guru Phil Steele always points out, such teams are often candidates for rebounds the following season, because turnovers aren’t a static number and a reversal of form can mean a dramatic turn in wins and losses.
— The coach, Mike Riley, has been around the block and knows how to address the needs. This isn’t a situation where it’s a third-year head coach and the program is struggling for credibility against years of losing.
OK: The concerns — running the ball and stopping the run. I’m saying the run game improves at least to respectable level. The problematic offensive line gets a boost from precocious freshman Isaac Seumalo, benefits from being a year advanced, and the backs, Malcolm Agnew (who must keep his troublesome hamstrings under control) and Storm Woods, are passable.
The defensive front, which got gashed for 196.8 yards a game rushing last year, will be better with a more capable Castro Masaniai at tackle, better linebacking and the development of Wynn and Crichton.
On a side note, I find intriguing the perception that follows certain teams. Their past is prologue. As I noted in a Times preview on Oregon early this week, it’s kind of unusual that the Ducks are accorded a top-five preseason ranking nationally, having lost a 5,000-yard career rusher in LaMichael James and not even having settled on a quarterback.
But that’s the sway of the Oregon program right now. On the other hand, Riley’s guys haven’t yet won the same kind of deference from the media. They were bad a year ago — 3-9, atop 5-7 the year before — and the prevailing assumption is, they’ll stay that way.
Ain’t gonna happen.