As the eve of a new era in the American Athletic Conference draws nearer, the second decade of AAC football brings possibility. Not necessarily a clean of slate league-wide, but the opportunity to play different programs, create new rivals, and for some, the chance to settle old scores.
For Temple football, the most-anticipated opponent in 2023 isn’t that far from City Center.
“I can’t wait to face Temple,” said second-year head coach Stan Drayton. “That’s the team I’m looking forward to facing.”
The Owls are entering their tenth year in the AAC. While their 2023 schedule boasts some solid matchups, Temple vs Temple isn’t one of them, prompting Drayton to elaborate.
“I want see what Temple is going to do against Temple - that’s the competition every week for us,” explained Drayton. “I know that’s not the answer you were looking for, I mean there’s some great teams that are coming into this conference, no doubt about it. But what is Temple going to do? Can Temple move Temple towards a championship caliber season? Or is Temple going to get in Temple’s way? That’s what we are focused on.”
That might sound suspiciously like coach-speak. However, Drayton’s words are drenched in sincerity, his genuineness a sign of change within a program previously tainted by toxicity.
“Trust is something that is an on-going deal. It’s something that never stops, especially when you are dealing with young men - you can correct them on a mistake and then all of a sudden you can lose their trust,” said Drayton. “It’s about teaching them how to respond the proper way, identifying when the things that are being told to you are the things that you absolutely need to hear for the betterment of you. We want them to see us not only as coaches or instructors, not only as people who are telling them what to do every minute of their lives but as people who genuinely care about them, want them to be great and see the potential that they could bring to the table, not only for themselves but for this program.”
The last few years have been tough for Temple and not in the traditional Cherry and White way. Many believed Rod Carey to be the wrong choice for the program and the numbers during his tenure proved them right. But it wasn’t just the wins, of which there were few, or the losses of which there were too many – it was the culture.
Last season saw some fight from the Owls in Drayton’s first year, on the wings of freshman quarterback E.J. Warner. Warner won the conference’s Rookie of the Year award after throwing for 3,028 yards and 18 touchdowns. There was also life on the ground from running back Edward Saydee, who finished with 639 rushing yards off of 149 carries, averaging 53.3 yards per game. With the departure of wide receivers Jose Barbon and Andonicas Sanders, Amad Anderson Jr. will be the guy to step up and lead the Owls in the air.
Quite the freshman season for Temple QB E.J. Warner:— College Football Network (@CFN365) June 1, 2023
Most single-season completions in school history
Most single-game passing yards in school history
AAC Rookie of the Year
Is he a top 50 QB in all of college football? #TempleTUFFpic.twitter.com/RbNZ9RNryT
Both the offensive and defensive lines need work but the linebackers are expected to be solid, led by junior Jordan Magee, who finished last season with 50 tackles, eight tackles-for-a-loss and 4.5 sacks.
How to translate that talent on the field to wins is the concern – something Drayton dealt with last year when the Owls had a repeat 3-9 season.
“Three wins is not the standard around here and when you talk in terms of me inheriting a program, we didn’t do better when it comes to the end result than the last staff in their last year here,” admitted Drayton. “But the learning curve was so big all over the place, schematically on the field and getting kids to buy in to our culture – it took time. And I think even in the midst of those three wins there was so much growth that I hope people don’t pay attention to, I hope they just look at three wins and just think we are a three-win football team. They’ll get caught off guard by how much growth took place during the course of the season last year.”
Despite the stagnant record, the slow-start, and the 70-points UCF put up on them last October, the Owls did experience moments of clarity and incremental growth over the course of the 2022 season.
“Here’s the beauty of it – it was a steady build-up, every week something got better,” said Drayton, describing the stretch where things started to click for the Owls. “I think heading in to Houston, that’s where the belief piece started to take place. We play a really good Houston team tough, lose in the final seconds of the game, we lose to ECU in the final seconds, we took Navy into two overtimes before that, and we played Cincinnati pretty tight.”
The Cincinnati game was polarizing – turnovers and penalties killed Temple from the start. While 2021 Temple would have thrown in the towel after Cincy’s 17-0 start – last year’s Owls showed a lot more heart as they battled back to hold the Bearcats to just two field goals in the second half.
“Defense would show up, or offense would show up, but none of us showed up at the same time. As frustrating as it is for me to say that as a coach, it gave us an opportunity to really see people step up when their teammates may have been struggling,” exclaimed the former NFL running back. “You have sides of the ball playing lights out because they knew one side of the ball was probably struggling a little bit – you just saw the level of play and the level of intent rise in those situations.”
Jordan Magee gives his thoughts on his of the other Temple linebackers has improved the most: pic.twitter.com/GxNhobnM5i— WHIP Sports (@WHIP_Sports) April 8, 2023
Drayton likes that this team got it out of the mud – he prefers it.
“Lets not take this the wrong way, I would have loved to have been undefeated last year. Don’t get me wrong. But I know that those lessons and those things that were taking place in the face of adversity needed to happen for us to take the step that we are trying to take now,” said Drayton. “You just hear it. They are not looking in the review mirror but they know when it just doesn’t feel right. If it feels like last year, then you hear our leaders start to step up and say ‘no, we’re not doing this.’ And I don’t know if we would be at that point if we hadn’t gone through what we went through a year ago.”
Temple hasn’t won a conference title since 2016. The program hasn’t won a bowl game since 2017. But Stan Drayton insists that defeat is a thing of the past.
“Losing has become something that they don’t enjoy - I think they had just accepted it before we got here,” divulged Drayton. “We’ve got kids going into this offseason, they want to change the narrative. Three wins is not the standard, they are buying into that. The thing I love about it is that I can actually see it in their actions – they’re going about their business to win a lot more football games around.”