Central Florida is the consensus pick to repeat as not only the East Division champion but as champion of the entire American Athletic Conference for a third straight year.
This is not a surprise. Central Florida is a quality program.
The big question is: Where does Temple fit in?
The Owls were picked fourth in the preseason media poll, behind UCF, Cincinnati, and South Florida.
This might sound like copping out, but Temple could finish from first to fourth. And so could the other three teams, although a lot would have to happen for UCF to go below second.
The Owls have a strong nucleus back from an 8-5 team that went 7-1 in the AAC, losing only a wild 52-40 decision at UCF in a game Temple led, 34-28, at halftime.
Two things will be critical for Temple can contend – the running game and keeping receiver and return specialist Isaiah Wright healthy, because he could be one of the busiest players in the country.
First-year coach Rod Carey likes to pound the ball, but there is a major void with the departure of last year’s leading rusher, Ryquell Armstead, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Graduate student Jager Gardner will get his chance, but he must prove he is durable. Redshirt freshman Kyle Dobbins has yet to take a regular-season snap. True freshman Ra’Mahn Davis has been great in camp and should be a major contributor.
Carey said all three would see action in the opener against Bucknell.
That is a solid group, but Wright is going to get the ball more and he could even line straight up as a running back.
He had three return touchdowns last year, but the Owls didn’t look his way enough in the passing game (33 receptions, 368 yards, 3 TDs; 19 carries, 84 yards, 1 TD).
The coaches want him to get 10-12 touches a game, not including the return game.
Anthony Russo will have to continue to develop at quarterback and regain his health. He missed two weeks of preseason practice with a calf injury before returning Monday.
The secondary, especially the corners, will have to hold up in this pass-happy league. The addition of Harrison Hand, a transfer from Baylor, could be huge.
So Temple should have a formidable team, but the AAC is by far the best non-Power 5 league in the country.
UCF is down to its third quarterback, but that player has already beaten Temple. AAC offensive player of the year McKenize Milton is out for the season following last year’s gruesome knee injury and his backup from last year, Darriel Mack Jr., is also out with an injury.
Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush, who beat Temple, 49-16, in the 2017 season opener for the Fighting Irish, takes over at UCF.
“He did a great job of coming in and earning and garnering the respect of his teammates in how he works and prepares,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said this week.
The Knights have great speed, an outstanding rushing attack, and will be difficult, but not impossible, to unseat.
Cincinnati was riding high last year at 6-0 until a 24-17 overtime loss at Temple, but the Bearcats have a great running attack led by Michael Warren. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder should improve on what was an impressive freshman season, except when he faced the Owls, who bottled him up.
The team everybody is sleeping on might be USF. Maybe the biggest addition was offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell, who is a former Florida quarterback and was a successful head coach at Valdosta State.
Bell should breath life into what was an underachieving offense. Quarterback Blake Barnett, who began his career at Alabama, should benefit most from Bell’s arrival.
Last year Temple beat USF, 27-17, when Wright gave the Owls the lead for good with a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Temple’s cumulative score with UCF, Cincinnati, and USF last year was 91-86. That’s how close things were a year ago and they could be even closer this season, which is why anything from first to fourth is possible for Temple.