Team: Temple Owls
2014 record: 6-6 (4-4 AAC)
Recap: According to SB Nation’s Advanced Stats Glossary, Temple was arguably the most improved team in the country last season. While its strength of schedule remained virtually the same (Sports-Reference), it went from a -59 point differential in 2013 to +67 in 2014—along with transforming the AAC’s worst-ranked defense (6.4 yards per play) to the nation’s fourth-best in terms of points allowed (17.5).
In Matt Rhule’s first year, the Owls won two games and lost to Fordham and Idaho in back-to-back games. Fordham and Idaho! But fast forward a few months, and you see a completely different team—one that blew out Vanderbilt by 30 on the road, beat a ranked ECU, and lost to Memphis and Cincinnati by a combined 11 points.
With all 11 starters and most of the second-stringers returning to a defense that was already lockdown, Temple can be considered a contender to win the AAC East division. To win it, however, the Owls will need more production from a painfully inefficient offense, and a complete 180 from once-promising quarterback P.J. Walker.
Key player: Tyler Matakevich, Sr., LB
Honestly, there’s room for several other defensive standouts right here—Praise Martin-Oguike, Tavon Young, etc.—but Matakevich might be the most irreplaceable. It’s not often that you see a weakside linebacker that has the ability to rack up tackles on both sides of the line of scrimmage; he finished with a team-high 102.5 tackles (355 total for his career, which is sixth all-time in school history) and 10.5 for loss. Matakevich’s never-ending motor is what drives the pieces around him to be one fluent (and highly disruptive) unit.
Biggest strength: Red zone defense
When the field got shorter, Temple’s defensive efficiency was enhanced dramatically. Opponents capitalized on just 72.8 percent of their trips to the red zone (8th in FBS), scoring a touchdown 13 times in 33 total attempts (t-1st overall). In addition, opponents averaged 2.8 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside Temple’s 40), which also happened to be the nation’s best mark. With tons of experience and continuity, it’s hard to imagine that there will be much change in this category.
Biggest weakness: Passing game
Let’s put it this way: Temple’s passing game was pretty awful in 2014, and sadly, much of it had to do with a forgetful sophomore slump for P.J. Walker. He suffered a good amount from offseason departures and an overall lack of explosiveness from his skill positions, as he watched his completion percentage drop from 61 percent to 53, and his yards per attempt plummet from 7.1 to 5.5. Some of this can also be attributed to injuries to the offensive line and backfield, but going 106-of-224 (47.3 percent) with four touchdowns and 11 interceptions the final seven games (where Temple went 2-5 and scored 12.3 points) is concerning moving forward.
Most important game: vs. Penn State (Sept. 5)
This may have zero implications in the grand scheme of things when it comes to an AAC title race, but upsetting Penn State at home in the season opener would be big-time for a program looking to take the next step and would set the bar extremely high the rest of the way out. This was a three-point game at halftime during last season’s 30-13 loss—one where I’m sure P.J. Walker is looking for redemption.
Best-case scenario: 8-4 (6-2)
Though it’d be outstanding to start the season off 1-0 with that opener against in-state rival Penn State, I don’t see it happening—even in this “best-case” scenario. That said, there’s no reason the Owls can’t survive a deadly non-conference slate (one that includes Notre Dame, too) and become a legitimate threat in the AAC this time around.
Worst-case scenario: 6-6 (4-4)
Two things: 1. Can Hawaii wide receiver transfer Keith Kirkwood become the offensive weapon Walker needs to stabilize the offense? and 2. Do we really expect a defense that posted ‘Bama-like mid-major numbers to replicate and sustain the same kind of success? Even if the latter remains true, it’s hard to imagine that an already lackluster receiving corps that lost its top target (Jalen Fitzpatrick) to see significant improvement.
Early prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
I’d say this would be a total waste for such a forceful defensive unit—especially since groups like these don’t come around very often for programs like Temple—but considering that the Owls have only been to four bowl games ever, I’m sure supporters will be delighted with an outcome like this.