A Temple football season that was originally scheduled to open on Sept. 5 is finally here.
In the second year under coach Rod Carey, the expectations aren’t high outside of the Owls' practice facility. Temple was picked to finish eighth in the 11-team American Athletic Conference preseason media poll.
Then again, the Owls are rarely picked high despite contending when the season starts. This is the first year in the new format, where there is just one division and the top two teams will play in the AAC title game. Previously, there were East and West Division champions, and those two played for the title. But when UConn left for the Big East and became an independent in football, the league decided on one division.
Central Florida was supposed to be one of the league’s best teams this season, but the 11th-ranked Knights squandered a 23-5 lead at home and lost to Tulsa last week. Just to show that preseason polls don’t mean a whole lot, especially in a pandemic-altered season, Tulsa was picked to finish ninth in the conference, one spot behind Temple.
So what to make of the Owls?
Temple should have one of the most explosive offenses. Anthony Russo has started 23 career games and last year threw for 2,861 yards and 21 touchdowns. Re’Mahn Davis was among the best freshman running backs in the country, rushing for 936 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns.
The offensive line has been bolstered by two graduate transfers, C.J. Perez from Northern Illinois and Michael Niese from Dayton, both expected to start.
The receivers are elite. Last year, Jadan Blue became the school’s first single-season 1,000-yard receiver. Branden Mack — who posted 59 receptions, 904 yards, 7 TDs last season — is a 6-foot-5 headache in the red zone.
The defense should be solid, led by the tackle tandem of Dan Archibong and first-team all-AAC selection Ifeanyi Maijeh.
The Owls have to replace three linebackers who are in the NFL — Shaun Bradley, Chapelle Russell, and Sam Franklin — and Isaiah Graham-Mobley should join them in a year.
There are questions on the secondary, although safety Amir Tyler and cornerback Christian Braswell are experienced leaders.
What nobody knows is how the layoff will impact the team. Temple will be the last AAC team to play a game after Houston opens on Thursday night against Tulane. What’s known is that the Temple players are sick of going against each other in practice.
“Fall camp has been four calendar months, we started in July,” Carey said. “So it is the longest fall camp, so they are excited, to say the least.”
The question is whether Temple will be game-ready, going against so many teams that will have played more than the Owls.
The Owls get a little break in that their first two games are against Navy and South Florida. Navy (1-2) has struggled to move the ball in its triple-option, and USF (1-2), among the AAC’s elite programs a few years ago, has slipped badly.
So if the Owls are able to win the first two games, they could gain some momentum.
Each AAC team plays eight conference games. Temple will have to face the top two contenders, SMU (4-0) and Cincinnati (3-0). Temple will get both teams at home this season, so the schedule at least works in the Owls' favor.
While other AAC teams have had nonconference games to shake off some of the rust, Temple’s four non-AAC games were canceled, so the Owls will dive into it right away.
They are capable. Last year, Temple was 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the AAC. It was challenging Cincinnati for first place in the East Division going into the next-to-last game, when special teams let the Owls down in a 15-13 road loss to the Bearcats.
Special teams will have to be vastly improved this year, and if the Owls can quickly shake the rust, they can compete with any of the teams on the schedule. Playing in the AAC title game might be too ambitious a goal, especially with recent nemesis UCF, along with Memphis, on the schedule in addition to SMU and Cincinnati.
Still, the Owls should be much better than the eighth-best team in the best Group of 5 conference around.