They set a regular-season school record for wins. They played in their conference’s inaugural championship game. They remain ranked among the top 25 nationally in every possible grading system known to college football kind.
Yet, despite all that, the Temple Owls find themselves playing the lamest bowl available to qualified American Athletic Conference teams in 2015.
A total of eight are being rewarded for campaigns that ranged from mediocre to magnificent, from 6-6 Tulsa and Connecticut to 12-1 Houston, and seven of those are playing in either more prestigious games or against more prestigious opposition.
Oh, that doesn’t mean Temple has the easiest opponent. Quite the contrary. It’s probably got the toughest game on the ledger for the AAC this postseason, save for Houston’s Peach Bowl date with Florida State on New Year’s Eve. The problem isn’t what Toledo brings to the table in terms of quality. It’s a matter of recognition.
The class of the Mid-American Conference until a late-season crash-and-burn ruined its own run at what Houston, Temple, Navy and Memphis were chasing for so long this fall – entrance into the big-time of bowls – it isn’t viewed in any circles as being in the class of a power-5 team, even if, in reality, it’s better than quite a few of them.
Hard as it may be, try to keep that in mind should the Owls have their hands full on December 22 at … where was that again? Oh yeah, Florida Atlantic University’s lovely, dainty, tiny, less-than-30,000-seat stadium in beautiful Boca Raton, Fla.
In my best Dom Irrera voice, don’t mean that in a bad way, but, hey, yo, that’s a bit podunk, ain’t it? No offense, but it is, for all that the current No. 24 team in the country accomplished this fall. Considering it plays in 69,000-seat Lincoln Financial Field and that it only played in one other stadium smaller than FAU’s, Temple may be looking at some serious culture shock.
Not to mention a lot of empty seats, with few expected to travel from Philly or northern Ohio for a game pitting programs that don’t have that “fans travel well” tag attached to them.
Here’s the thing, the AAC had ties with three bowls that would be featuring Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference opposition … beyond the prize of a New Year’s bowl that awaited its 2015 conference champion. With Houston rightfully earning that, it stands to reason that the next best three AAC teams deserved those aforementioned slots.
Temple, no matter how you slice it, was one of those. Even if someone wanted to give the nod to Navy, a runner-up to Houston in the AAC West, over the Owls, they still rated no worse than No. 3 status in the conference.
Not, “take these scraps and be happy about it” last of the circuit’s bowl-eligible teams.
The first signs of trouble occurred before Saturday’s title game took place. Navy was offered a spot in the Military Bowl and accepted. South Florida likewise in the Miami Beach Bowl.
The Military Bowl, obviously, has an affinity for Navy, especially since the school’s stadium in Annapolis, Md., is where the game is played. Frankly, that would’ve been a nice place for Temple to land, since it’s the closest bowl to Philly and actually could have drawn some Temple fans.
The Middies get to face Pittsburgh out of the ACC. Meanwhile, Tulsa will get the ACC’s Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl and Memphis, which Temple just dominated a few weeks ago, will take on Auburn of the SEC.
The real shame is, even with those slaps to the proverbial kisser, Temple had to endure these, too:
South Florida will face Conference USA champ Western Kentucky.
Cincinnati will get Mountain West champ San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl.
UConn will take on Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Not for nothing, but Temple’s option rates behind all of the above in terms of site and respect.
If the AAC has nothing in its bylaws to control who goes where, and when they can accept, conference administrators, headed by Commissioner Mike Aresco, need to change that … immediately. Because what happened to Temple here was wrong. The Owls, under third-year head coach Matt Rhule, deserved a much better bowl as a member of the conference, a conference to which it brought an incredible amount of attention, if not prestige, this season.
Matt Rhule (center, in black) celebrates Temple winning the AAC East Division with his players November 28 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Kudos to Temple, my alma mater.
The university did the smart thing, the right thing, the best thing, the only thing for its football program Monday. It tore up the contract extension Matt Rhule just signed back in late July and rewarded him with a new, more lucrative, six-year contract that will run through the 2021 season.
Such is befitting a head coach who has taken a previously nondescript entity, when, of course, it wasn’t a laughingstock, in the college gridiron universe and made it relevant on the national scene.
Securing a program-first 10 wins in the regular season, the Owls’ first national ranking since 1979 and their first win against Penn State in 74 years, Rhule clearly has had an incredible impact on Temple in just three seasons at the helm and proven himself worthy of mention among the tops at his profession at the FBS level.
But let’s try to keep a couple things straight.
For starters, this was not some last-ditch salvation show by the school to keep a hot-commodity coach from jumping ship to join a better-known college program with deeper pockets. Ironically, even as Rhule’s name kept popping up in local circles as a possibility for job opportunities elsewhere, the only place his name seemed to be in play at all was Missouri, which eventually hired one of its assistants, and, frankly, no national outlets were trumpeting him as a candidate anywhere else.
Southern Cal, Miami, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Maryland, even Rutgers – all in more prestigious conferences, all with better track records and all with seemingly bigger wallets – never really had Rhule on their radar apparently.
Why? Not really sure, because he certainly was the mastermind behind arguably the best story in the sport this fall. But he wasn’t, and the reality is, any job out there that could have been viewed as better than the one he already had was filled before the final whistle blew on Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game that saw Rhule’s Owls fall to Houston, 24-13.
All of the aforementioned vacancies no longer existed by then, aside from some dotting of the “i’s” and crossing of “t’s.” The pure, unadulterated gut feeling here heading into the weekend was that if Rhule had somehow coaxed Temple past the Cougars that the South Carolina gig was his, even without an interview, if he wanted it. But the administration in Columbia, S.C., for some unknown reason to the sane portion of mankind, was so overwhelmed by Will Muschamp, less than two years after his flame-out at Florida, that it couldn’t wait to pull the trigger … and didn’t.
With that, the big-time portion of the coaching carousel closed for 2015 … unless some other heads start to roll this offseason.
No, what this was by Temple was recognition for a job well done and the potential for much more.
Rhule, with his attitude, energy, commitment and recruiting prowess, brings so much hope for special things along North Broad that you almost start to wonder if people in Philly actually might start to notice and get on board.
The other thing is, as much as it may pain any of my fellow alums or Temple supporters in general, Rhule still has a ways to go as a coach on gameday. A linebacker during his undergrad days at Penn State, he has hitched his wagon to the offensive side of the ball with X’s and O’s, and while he has had his moments, he has hardly proven himself to be impeccable with strategy, adjustment, play-calling or clock management.
Not that anyone is, but his flaws are apparent to anyone not hung up on Temple losing a good coach because they fear criticism, or even the thought of it, will upset his mojo just so that he leaves.
Perhaps those who may have courted Rhule viewed the game tapes a bit more intently, and without Cherry-colored glasses, than fans or the Philly media.
The over-reliance this season on an under-sized feature back, as generalized, blanket statement-sounding as that reads, particularly in the second half after the youngster has shown serious wear and tear, has been a major flaw, and consistently put the Owls in harm’s way, even in games when they had vastly superior talent. Great effort, determination and some serious guts – all of which can be traced back to their coach – got them out of most messes. The point is, the negative is, they never needed to be in many of them.
The loss to Houston, more than anything else, can be attributed to the fact that Temple continued to try to run the ball against a rush defense as good as its own (both teams allowed just 117 yards per game before Saturday) even though “the book” said the best way to compete with the Cougars was to throw, throw, throw since they gave up an average of almost 270 yards per game coming in.
Ultimately, the Owls couldn’t help themselves with racking up yards through the air, and quarterback P.J. Walker surpassed that mark and hit for 287. But Rhule and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, even with the team down 11 and just 5:05 remaining, still tried to get running back Jahad Thomas off.
There wasn’t enough time. That’s just reality, and Rhule and his right-hand man needed to accept that and deal with it accordingly. OK, the Owls caught Houston off-guard right then to get a 19-yard run by the junior, his best of the day, a day that included 12 runs of 3 yards or less out of his 19 carries. Instead of using that as inspiration to get rolling, Rhule and Co. went back to the well for another run … that netted 2 yards and an incredible amount of wasted time.
The near 30-second stint of silence before calling a timeout not long after that with the clock ticking down wasn’t exactly what anyone would file under “what makes a champion,” either.
But Rhule is a good coach, a very good one, and he is a great motivator and an incredible salesman. He’s provided an incredible shot in the arm to a program that, frankly, hasn’t achieved its current level of respect perhaps ever, unless Pop Warner’s 1934 edition of Owls was turning heads like never reported en route to a Sugar Bowl bid. He deserved to be rewarded for a job well done, and Temple did the right thing in doing so.
Perhaps the payoff will come in an on-campus stadium, more expertise on gameday and many championships, conference or beyond.