Others may want to dwell on what the Temple football team has accomplished to this point. That’s not the case for third-year Owls coach Matt Rhule. He is having none of that.
Rhule prefers to stay focused on the future.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Rhule said on this week’s American Athletic Conference coaches’ teleconference call. “I don’t want to diminish the accomplishment as far as being 6-0 and having a chance to be bowl-eligible. But if that’s the highlight of our season, it’s not going to be the season we wanted. We have to be completely focused on what the future is.”
Indeed, the Owls are 6-0 and they became bowl-eligible with last Saturday’s victory over Central Florida. Not only that, but Temple is No. 22 in the Associated Press poll and 24th in the coaches poll. It is the first appearance in the national rankings for Temple since 1979.
Temple finished 10-2 in 1979 and was ranked No. 17 in the final poll after beating Cal in the Garden State Bowl. Since that season, the Owls have going bowling only twice – losing to UCLA in 2009 Eagle Bank Bowl and beating Wyoming in the 2011 Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
That’s enough to illustrate how special this season could ultimately become.
All the success this season has given Temple a strong voice in a league-wide statement being made by the AAC. Memphis (6-0) is coming off a huge 37-24 upset of Mississippi that lifted the Tigers to No. 18 in the AP rankings. Houston (6-0) sits at No. 21 and has rapidly become a feared opponent.
Temple, picked to finish third behind Cincinnati and UCF in the AAC East in the conference preseason poll, is a bit of a surprise guest at the party.
“I’m really proud of our players and it’s a tribute to them that people have noticed how they have played to this point,” Rhule told The Associated Press. “I am thrilled that we have been able to get off to a 6-0 start. But I’ll repeat what I have said before, it’s a long season and I’ll be happier if we can finish the year ranked among the best in the country.”
Temple began the season with a historic win over rival Penn State on Sept. 5. One week later, the Owls battled on the road and came away with a big conference victory at Cincinnati.
People started paying attention.
The future Rhule talks about is almost immediate and it includes two upcoming games with television exposure that could define Temple’s season. On Thursday night, Temple will try to improve to 4-0 in the AAC with a game at East Carolina (4-3, 2-1).
“Going from a night game to a Thursday game is a challenge,” Rhule said. “East Carolina is a dangerous team.”
After that, on Halloween, Temple will play its most important game in years when No. 11 Notre Dame visits Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. That has already been set as a primetime showdown at 8 p.m. on ABC.
That’s unfamiliar territory for Temple. Ranked team vs. ranked team. Late October. Big game. Big stage — and so much on the line.
“I discussed [being ranked with the team] because I know everyone else is [talking about it],” Rhule said. “I just kind of always deal in reality. My point has very simply been, rankings come and go game by game. At the end of the day, if you want to be ranked, our focus should be on being ranked at the end of the year. And the only way to do that is to prepare and focus on what’s next at a high level. … I did talk about it because I know they’re hearing about it and I don’t want to put my head in the sand. Tried to set the proper tone for how we should look at it.”
The presence of three AAC teams in the rankings brings the three-year old league closer to the goal set by league commissioner Mike Aresco. When Memphis plays at Temple on Nov. 21, the stakes will be high. The highest ranked conference champion from the Group of 5 conferences is guaranteed a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls.
Temple rounds out the regular season with a home game against UConn on Nov. 28. The first ever AAC championship game is set for Dec. 6.
“Our goal has always been to be viewed in the conversation with the so-called Power Five,” Aresco told the AP.
Of course, there is a bigger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Aresco and Rhule aren’t shy to dream about that either.
“We want to be considered for the playoff spot,” Aresco said. “We’re not just content to be playing for a Group of Five spot on New Year’s Day.”
That may take some time. But give the AAC credit for what is happening right now. Memphis, Houston and Temple are making some significant noise.