CORVALLIS — While coach Mike Riley had an inkling last season's Oregon State Beavers were better than they were billed, this season he's more pragmatic about the team.

CORVALLIS — While coach Mike Riley had an inkling last season's Oregon State Beavers were better than they were billed, this season he's more pragmatic about the team.

"I actually think this team learned a lot about what it took to win games," Riley said. "Hopefully, they'll continue with that growth."

Oregon State went from 3-9 in 2011 to a 9-4 finish last season. The six-game turnaround is the best in school history, and only Ohio State and Middle Tennessee could also boast the same improvement last year.

The Beavers' turnaround ended with a 31-27 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl. That final loss, a Civil War defeat by Oregon, and the fact that they didn't reach the 10-win plateau is what drives the team this season.

"Last year a lot of people doubted us, and look what we showed," receiver Brandin Cooks said. "We're still getting doubted. All that does is fuel the fire and makes us work harder. With that being said, I feel like we can go down and win the Rose Bowl and win this conference. That's something we're shooting for. We set our standards high."

The Beavers return 16 starters from last season's team. Most notable among the departures were receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback Jordan Poyer.

Five things to watch as the Beavers prepare to open the season at home on Aug. 31 against Eastern Washington.

1. WHO WILL START? — Quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz are competing for the starter's job after going back and forth last season. Mannion started Oregon State's first four games, averaging 339.5 yards passing a game, but injured his left knee and required arthroscopic surgery. Vaz competently stepped in and won two games, giving the Beavers their best start since they also went 6-0 in 1907. Vaz, hampered down the stretch by an injury to his left ankle, threw for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games. Mannion threw for 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games. Riley says both QBs can win, but it's a matter of determining who will be the most consistent at the position.

2. COOKS TAKES OVER — Wheaton and Brandin Cooks made up one of the most dynamic receiving tandems in the Pac-12. Wheaton caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 95.7 yards receiving a game, while Cooks caught five TDs and averaged 88.5 yards a game. Wheaton's 1,244 total yards ranked sixth in Oregon State history, while Cooks was seventh with 1,151 yards receiving. Wheaton moved on to the NFL and now Cooks is a junior ready to take the lead role. The Beavers are still looking to fill his old role, with Richard Mullaney, Malik Gilmore and Obum Gwacham vying for the job.

3. NEW UNIFORMS — Not to be outdone by that other team down the road, Oregon State will have a new look this season. The highlight of the rebranding effort — yes, by Nike — is a new Beaver logo, more stylized than its predecessor. Oregon State's colors remain orange and black, but metallic bronze was added as an accent color. A new font will be used for numbers and letters. Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis says it is the biggest transformation the Beavers have undergone over the past 15 years.

4. GROUND GAME — Oregon State has been known for more than a decade for its prolific running backs, like Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, but last year receivers Wheaton and Cooks stole the show. The Beavers are looking to improve their running game this season with Storm Woods and Terron Ward. The duo has vowed to each run for 2,000 yards.

5. KICKING IT — A dependable kicker is essential in college football, and Oregon State has that in Trevor Romaine. Last season as a sophomore, he scored 99 points and made 16 of 18 field goals for the best percentage in the Pac-12. He made 12 straight field goals to end the season. Romaine is on the watch list for the Lou Gorza Award for the nation's best kicker.

Predicted finish in conference — Third in the Pac-12 North.