HOUSTON - The photo, large as life, was the first thing Temple Owls players saw when leaving their locker room. On a wall in a hallway, the sign depicted those same players celebrating, taken just last week.

"Stretch it out, but don't rip it," one Temple staffer said as several packed up the sign commemorating Temple's American Athletic Conference East Division title.

Give Temple all the credit you want for fighting back from some quick and costly turnovers, but Houston turned the Owls away and earned the AAC's big banner, 24-13, Saturday at TDECU Stadium.

No offense to the Boca Raton Bowl, or wherever the Owls end up playing one last game - and there still is a chance to win a school-record 11th game - but last weekend turned out to be the highest ground the Owls would reach this season. Temple coach Matt Rhule clearly knew it as he listed the 2015 team's achievements.

"For our kids to win 10 games and beat Penn State and bring College GameDay to Philadelphia, to do the things they've done - I know we're going to a bowl game - I couldn't be more proud," Rhule said.

At the least, the AAC was the sixth-best college football conference in America this fall, which also meant there were six championships to be won in those conferences. Asked about this one being a deflating loss, Rhule said: "I'm not deflated, at all. I'm disappointed. You play in a championship game, you're going to win some, you're going to lose some, right? We plan on being here again."

Rhule's point wasn't "you win some, you lose some." He talked about how his players fought back. There was plenty of pain in his voice. He's just always talking about establishing topflight consistency. He talked about how Houston had been in a bowl game last year and the year before and two years before that.

"They've been in these moments," Rhule said. "This was our first time being on this stage. At the end of the day, this wasn't deflating. This was one of the most positive days in Temple football history."

Rhule spelled out the depth of the achievement: "These kids haven't even been to a bowl game yet. We jumped Step C - we went from B to D."

The players clearly were angry at not achieving E.

"We had to tackle well, and we didn't," said senior defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis. After Houston got ahead, 17-0, midway through the second quarter, the Cougars scored only one more time, and didn't score in the last 211/2 minutes of the game. Nothing to be proud of there, Ioannidis suggested. Those first minutes count.

"We played bad defense in the first half," Ioannidis said. "We didn't tackle well, we didn't run our angles, and it showed. It caught us. They took advantage of it."

At his news conference, Rhule talked about the pass breakups Houston made in the red zone - "there are three or four or five plays you have to make in the red zone" - how Temple made some big plays but ultimately was "a step away from breaking them"; how the blitzing Cougars also won the turnover battle; how maybe there were some early nerves; and how the Cougars also had quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who broke those big plays.

"We just couldn't get the run game going," Rhule said, mentioning a bread-and-butter aspect for the Owls this season. "We couldn't get the power run game going."

It's clear Rhule had his chances to leave. He talked to Missouri, but the argument here is that Rhule probably had to talk to at least one school for leverage purposes. Other schools apparently reached out, but it never reached the talking stage.

Rhule presumably thinks he's in a good position for next year. If you take a close look at Temple's depth chart, you'll notice there isn't a position where a senior wouldn't be replaced with an experienced hand. A lot of talent is leaving, six of the Owls' seven all-AAC first-teamers, but there's no reason to think this team is about to fall off a cliff.

You got the clear sense from Rhule that he believed home-field advantage in the AAC title game turned out to be more than a small factor. You can almost hear him using that as he's working his team next spring.

"It was just really, really, really loud," Rhule said. "You have to deal with it. . . . It made it hard for us to execute, especially in that student end zone."

Even as the UH faithful left Texas Dow Employee Credit Union Stadium, someone would shout: "Whose house?"

"Coug's house!" a happy chorus would chant back.

Temple's coach couldn't help but look ahead, right past the bowl game, to the 2016 American Athletic Conference championship game.

"Next year, we'll hopefully have it at our place," Rhule said.

@jensenoffcampus