Jonathan Smith’s first year as coach of the Beavers is in the books. When I roamed the parking lots at Reser Stadium before the Nov. 23 Civil War game against Oregon, I asked fans what sort of letter grade they would give Smith for year one.
The fans I talked to, showing the optimism that makes them, well, fans, all gave Smith a mark of B or higher. I was a bit surprised by this given the 2-9 record OSU brought into the game (not to mention the 55-15 thrashing that followed).
But I also recognize that there is a fairly deep reservoir of good will that Smith enjoys because of his Beaver ties … and because he is not Gary Andersen (7-23 in 2.5 years).
So now the big question is what happens in year two … and three and four? Will Smith bring the Beavs back to .500 and bowl eligibility … or even further? And how much can one coach do … given the challenges that OSU football faces? Here’s a summary:
• OSU has won 9 games in the past 4 years. You have to go back to 1989-92 during the streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons to find a 4-season stretch that bleak. And that also means that a high school kid could go from freshman year through his senior season this fall … with the Beavers bad the entire time.
Yes, the Beavers won 36 games in a 4-year stretch from 2006-09 but those high school players that Smith and his staff hope to recruit weren’t even 10 yet. And none of them have a clue about the 11-1 season in 2000 with Smith at quarterback. College sports is a Darwinian, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and the Beavs haven’t done much lately.
• The fans have deserted OSU football in droves. The Beavers averaged 35,209 fans per home game this season, ahead of only Washington State in the Pac-12. And there were less than 40,000 on hand for the Civil War, considerably less than that, by some estimates. It marked the first Civil War in Corvallis that drew less than 40,000 fans since Reser Stadium was remodeled before the 2005 season. As recently as 2010, OSU averaged more than 45,000 fans per home game. Last year, during the Andersen meltdown, the average was 34,754. Do the math: The addition of Smith, supposedly a huge fan favorite in Corvallis, added 455 butts in the seats per game.
And, as I keep pointing out, when you have 10,000 empty seats in your stadium that’s lost ticket revenue, lost donor revenue, lost concession revenue and lost merchandise revenue. And the recruits you bring in to show off the facilities wander around in a not quite completed stadium with no buzz.
• Financially it is difficult for OSU to compete, either within the Pac-12 or nationally. According to data compiled by USA Today the Beavers were 9th in the conference in athletics revenue for the 2016-17 period at approximately $79 million. WSU was 10th at $64 million. Please note that private universities such as Stanford and USC (or ones in other leagues such as Duke, Northwestern, Baylor or Vanderbilt) do not release information on their athletic spending, but it seems likely that the Cardinal and Trojans spend more than the Beavs and Cougas.
The rest of the Pac-12? Oregon $145M, Washington $129M, UCLA $104M, ASU $102M, Colorado $94M, Arizona $91M, California $91M and Utah $84. OSU and WSU are the two lowest spenders among Power 5 conferences. The top 5 nationally? Texas $215M, Texas A&M $212M, Ohio State $185M, Michigan $185M and Alabama $174M.
The less you bring in the less you can spend. Which means that if OSU is going to compete with the big boys it must be smarter at recruiting, smarter at developing players and smarter at coaching them. Right now, that isn’t happening.
• Returning to the issue of recruiting, I found it mildly amusing when a graphic flashed on the screen during the Civil War broadcast indicating that a total of 52 players on the Ducks and Beavers rosters were from Oregon. I can only find 36 and just 11 on the two depth charts, 6 for OSU and 5 for Oregon. The lesson here is that unlike, say, that top 5 above, the Beavers — and Ducks — HAVE to recruit out of state. Which is harder. Tons of recruits have no idea where Corvallis is. And if you are from Southern California or Hawaii or Arizona it’s a whole lot farther for mom and dad to get to a game.
• Look at the way the Beavers have trended since that 28-year tailspin. From 1999 to 2009 the Beavers went to 9 bowl games and won 6. Since that time it's 2 bowls and 1 win. The architect of much of that success, coach Mike Riley, finished his OSU career with a 58-63 league record. And even if you throw out his 2-14 start before he left for the NFL that leaves a 56-49 finish after he replaced Dennis Erickson. That's a .533 winning percentage. For every 15 league games he wins 8. Would Beaver Nation be satisfied if that is the outcome with Smith? Somehow I don't think so. Rueck is taking women's hoops to the Final Four. Casey won 3 College World Series. What's up with football?
• Another way to look at it is by using my game-by-game prediction formula. The 4 key elements are coach, QB, defense and home field advantage. The Beavers have won 1 home game in each of the past 2 seasons, gave up more than 500 yards in 10 of their 12 games this season and the QB position is unsettled. This puts a lot of pressure on Smith, doesn’t it?
• Then there is the issue of the schedule. The Beavers open the 2019 season at home vs. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were just 6-6 this season but won 10 or more games in 6 of the previous 8 seasons. The other two nonleague games are at Hawaii and at home vs. Cal Poly. Those optimistic Reser tailgaters I talked to last Friday would say the Beavers can go 2-1 before opening Pac-12 play.
But to get to .500 that means the Beavs need 4 league wins, a feat they have not accomplished since 2013. And football is a zero-sum game. Unlike in Lake Woebegon all of the teams cannot be above average. So in the future Beavers either have to improve to the extent that they can beat teams that were clearly better than them in 2018 … or some of their conference foes have to regress, or better yet, crater. Home Pac-12 opponents in 2019 are ASU, Stanford, Utah and Washington. The 5 road opponents are UCLA, WSU, Arizona, Cal and the Ducks. The Beavs skip USC and Colorado. That’s unfortunate because this season OSU beat Colorado in overtime and their 17-point loss to USC was their "closest" Pac-12 defeat.
Stanford, Washington, Utah, WSU and the Ducks all seem pretty solid right now. Which means to get to 6 wins OSU has to sweep the Arizona schools, UCLA and Cal. And whether that means a one-year, two-year or three-year climb to .500 the math is the same.
Can Smith do it? I don’t know. I would have given him a grade of incomplete. Just think about the past two Civil Wars. The Beavers have lost to the Ducks by a combined 124-25 score, back-to-back routs that never have happened before in the Civil War. And the Oregon teams involved have not been powerhouses … a 7-6 2017 team that lost the Las Vegas Bowl and an 8-4 team this season that will see action in a similarly modest post-season contest.
So what do YOU think Beaver Nation?