WHEN TEMPLE beat then-No. 23 East Carolina a month ago, it sure looked as if the Owls would be heading to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
And they still could be. But they have lost three straight since then, all to teams that are going to a bowl, two of them by one score at home. In fact, all six teams they have lost to have at least six wins. For the Owls to become eligible, they need to win Saturday night's regular-season finale at 3-8 Tulane, in their first trip to New Orleans since they played the Green Wave in the first Sugar Bowl 79 years ago.
They probably didn't expect to be in this position after their 4-1 start, with all those wins coming against teams that aren't going to have a postseason. Yet here they are. They still have three wins more than last season, when it seemed like they couldn't stop anyone, especially when it really counted. This year they just haven't been able to score nearly enough. But another win would give them as many as they've had in the last two seasons combined. So there is that. And while there's no guarantees, 6-6 could get them into one of your 38 bowls.
In 2010, the 8-4 Owls were one of two teams that got left out, when they were in the MAC. While the AAC - which has affiliations with five bowls - isn't one of the five major conferences, it's the best of the rest. Maybe that makes the difference. First the Owls have to give someone a reason to take them.
"The biggest thing for us is for our kids to come down to the final week with something on the line," second-year coach Matt Rhule said. "We have a chance to get bowl eligible, which is something many of them haven't done yet. It would be another step in the right direction for us.
"Once we got to five, it was kind of assumed we'd win a sixth. You have to go win the sixth. Tulane wants to end the right way. I know we don't want to get started on next year [coming] off a loss. We want to finish the season the way we started [they won at Vanderbilt]. You don't want to send the seniors off the wrong way.
"It's important to be bowl eligible. Playing the teams we played, I think it would be an accomplishment. There haven't been many teams that have done it in Temple history, even in Temple's recent history. So I want us to go do that."
The Owls haven't scored more than 20 points since Oct. 11. They haven't had more than 14 in their last five losses. Last week they got six against Cincinnati, the first time since the 2010 finale that they didn't have a touchdown. Tulane has lost four of its last five, having played the same five conference opponents as Temple in the season's second half. The Wave, which is coming off a bye, also hasn't surpassed 14 in those losses. In the last two they had 13 total.
A year ago the 1-10 Owls closed at 3-7 Memphis and won, 41-21.
"The near-misses bother us," Rhule said. "Some games we didn't play as well as we wanted to. I'm as impatient and frustrated as . . . I might smile, but I don't like to lose. But I know we made a decision to do this right. We're redshirting 15 freshmen. I know we'll be significantly better in coming years because of that.
"I'm proud of this team. We're getting better. I told the kids that being a winner or loser is not defined by winning and losing, but whether you accept winning or losing. We've made tremendous strides since last year. That doesn't mean losing these games is acceptable. It's still pretty hard. We're not there yet. It's tremendously frustrating. But it's also encouraging, that we're trending that way.
"It's frustrating any time you lose. I've always talked about where we have to get, with where we've been. Otherwise, you get too high or too low."
For now, something right in the middle record-wise will be sufficient.