You could say the Temple Owl football program has some baggage.
They were so bad in the mid-2000s that they were jettisoned from the old Big East (RIP), wandered lost as an Independent and found themselves in the MAC (where they were kinda good for a couple years!) before landing in the American Athletic Conference, and then it's East division. That's why it's hard to believe they've arrived where they currently sit: one win away from their first conference championship in 48 years.
In a way, this season only makes sense if you look at it in a vacuum. There was plenty of questions heading into the season, but the Owls have answered all of them on their way to their 9-2 record. On the precipice of unprecedented success, let's take a look back at Temple's season.
We picked Temple third in the AAC East in the preseason. Going one step further, we even went out on a limb and said they could be a disappointment. Sure, that might look bad now, but given how the Owls finished 2014, it was a more than fair bet at the time. Temple finished 6-6 in 2014, losing five of their last seven.
As disappointing as the finish was, though, the Owls still had their most important pieces coming back, especially on a defense that was fourth nationally in points allowed in 2014. Reason enough for optimism.
The Penn State Upset and a Strong Start
Temple didn't wait long announce its presence on the national scene. In the season opener against Penn State, they battered Christian Hackenburg and the Nittany Lion offense, racking up ten sacks and holding them to 180 total yards in the 27-10 win. It was a signature win for the Owls, and showed exactly what they were capable of. Big plays from Jahad Thomas and solid passing from P.J. Walker was more than enough for the Owl defense led by Tyler Matakevich (seven tackles, three sacks) and Tavon Young (six tackles, forced fumble.) It's not a stretch to say the win propelled the Owls to the hot start that would continue through the first two months of the season.
The Owls followed the Penn State win with another strong showing against preseason AAC favorite Cincinnati. Temple led 34-12 in the fourth before the Bearcats tried to rally for a comeback, but the Owls held on for the 34-26 victory behind 193 rushing yards by Thomas.
From there, Temple won its next five games. They defeated UMass, Charlotte, Tulane, UCF and ECU.
The 7-0 start catapulted the Owls to #21 in the polls, and into their biggest game of the season.
Notre Dame and Earning Their Place
On Halloween night, the Owls met the #9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the biggest game in program history. College GameDay was there. Lincoln Financial Field was sold out. Temple football had arrived.
The result, a hearbreaking 24-20 loss, was almost secondary. Temple didn't just hang with the Irish, they took the fight right to them. Walker was dynamic, throwing for 188 yards and a TD, while also making several plays with his feet. The defense bent all night, but never broke. They forced two red zone interceptions of DeShone Kizer, and did a good job of limiting the Irish for much of the game. Unfortunately, a win just wasn't meant to be. Kizer hit Will Fuller on a 17 yard TD pass with just over two minutes remaining, allowing the Irish to escape Philly with a hard fought win. Despite the loss, Temple proved that they were for real.
The Owls followed the tough loss with a wild, 60-40 win over SMU before they hit their first real speed bump of the year in an ugly loss to USF.
The Bulls ran all over the Owls in a 44-23 win, rushing for 326 yards against Temple's top-ranked run defense. As bad as it was, it almost served as a washout for the Owls.
The Owls bounced back with what may have been their most complete performance of the year in a 31-12 win over Memphis that they needed to keep their title hopes alive. It was yet another masterpiece by the Temple defense, as they held the Tigers to just 76 yards rushing on the day.
The Owls closed the regular season with a thorough 27-3 beating of UConn, giving them the AAC East crown and sending them to Houston to take on the Cougars in the AAC Championship.
Here We Are
So, the Temple Owls are in the AAC championship game. If we've learned anything from the regular season, the Owls will let their defense take the lead, while the offense tails along for the ride.
No matter what the result is, the road they've taken has led them to this. One more win and head coach Matt Rhule's battle-tested team will find themselves in yet more uncharted territory, a high-profile bowl.