Oregon State hit rock bottom in head coach Gary Andersen's debut season. The Beavers ranked 11th or 12th in the Pac-12 in several offensive and defensive categories and struggled to keep games close. They finished without a single win over a conference opponent and have now lost 21 of their last 23 Pac-12 games dating back to the 2013 season.
Will things improve in 2016? Oregon State faces a steep climb to become competitive in the Pac-12 North again. Andersen revived a moribund Utah State program in his first FBS head coaching stop. It might take similar magic to get things back on track in Corvallis.
Minnesota provides a critical test right out of the gate. With a veteran quarterback in Mitch Leidner and a deep stable of running backs, the Golden Gophers appear poised to take a big step forward on offense this season.
This is the fourth all-time meeting between Oregon State and Minnesota and the first since 1981. The Golden Gophers lead the series 2-1.
Oregon State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept 1. at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT)
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Minnesota -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Oregon State throw the ball?
Few teams struggled as much to move the ball through the air as Oregon State did last season. The Beavers ranked last among Pac-12 teams in passing offense (159.1 yards per game), total offense (336.4 ypg) and scoring offense (19.0 ppg).
Facing Minnesota is not welcome news in that area. The Golden Gophers boasted the 11th-ranked pass defense (179.5 ypg) among FBS teams last season. Minnesota shouldn't skip a beat this fall. The Golden Gophers have excellent speed at linebacker with Jack Lynn and Cody Poock headlining that group. It should take pressure off a secondary breaking in a pair of new cornerbacks to replace Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
Junior quarterback Darell Garretson offers some hope Oregon State can do better in the passing game. The Utah State transfer threw for 2,586 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while playing in 13 games over two seasons for the Aggies.
2. Will Minnesota's offense be more potent?
The Golden Gophers are traditionally a team that likes to pound the ball down an opposing team's throat with tons of running. Minnesota will need to improve on that aspect this season. Freshmen backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith return after combining for 1,379 total rushing yards in 2015. Still, the Gophers ranked 12th in their league in rushing offense (144.1 ypg).
Turning long drives into points is a concern. Minnesota ranked 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (22.5 ppg) in 2015. If the Gophers can get the running game to catch up to the passing game, it might be a different story in 2016.
Leidner made major progress last season. He ended up throwing for 2,701 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions a year ago while completing 59.5 percent of his passes. Minnesota will need even more from him to progress offensively this season.
3. Big Ten vs Pac-12
Neither Minnesota nor Oregon State has had much recent success in Big Ten vs Pac 12 inter-sectional games. The Gophers have lost four straight to Pac-12 opponents since earning a 31-30 victory over Oregon back in the 2003 Sun Bowl. The Beavers are 2-3 in their last five games against current Big Ten teams, beating Maryland 21-14 in the 2007 Emerald Bowl and edging Wisconsin 10-7 in ‘12.
This game is the first of four contests this season pitting a Pac-12 team and a Big Ten team against each other. Washington hosts Rutgers this weekend. Oregon plays Nebraska and Colorado faces Michigan in two weeks.
Rebuilding a contender isn't going to be a quick process at Oregon State. Andersen had a dearth of talent in his first season and still has tons of ground to cover for the Beavers to escape the Pac-12 North cellar. Minnesota, on the other hand, is expected to return to a bowl again this season and could be a spoiler in the Big Ten West. The Gophers should have no trouble breaking their recent losing streak to Pac-12 teams.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Oregon State 21
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.