"Another double-digit win total might not even be asking too much."
I WROTE THOSE words in April, in a Temple preview story for a national publication. Because I thought the Owls would go no worse than 3-1 in the non-American Athletic Conference part of their schedule, and 6-2 in the games that did count in the standings. That would give them a chance to go back to the title game, and you can always win a bowl. So it all seemed realistic enough.
Then they lost the opener as a double-digit favorite by two touchdowns to Army, which went 2-10 last year (but is 4-3). Two weeks later they lost at Penn State by a touchdown, which wasn't necessarily unexpected. Still, neither did they help themselves by getting penalized 13 times for 118 yards. Three weeks later they lost at Memphis, again by seven after leading by 13, when they gave up touchdowns on interception and kickoff returns.
The next game they were losing by 18 at Central Florida - which went 0-12 in 2015 (but is also 4-3) - but ended up going 70 yards in four plays in the final 32 seconds to get a one-point win. And last week they beat preseason East favorite South Florida, which had beaten them last year by 21, to take control of their divisional fate.
Their remaining four opponents, starting Saturday afternoon in South Philly with Cincinnati (4-3, 1-3), are the current last three teams in the East and the last one in the West (Connecticut, East Carolina and Tulane).
The Owls (5-3, 3-1) haven't accomplished anything yet. But they could wind up doing as much or more than their predecessors, who started 7-0 and got ranked and tied a program record for wins (10) despite losing four of its last seven.
Maybe it doesn't have to always compute.
They lost 19 seniors. They've lost some key players to injuries. Others are playing hurt. They're not the only team that's had to do that. Yet at some point something around eight wins was starting to look a lot more reasonable. And that might still turn out to be the bottom line. But at least they've put themselves in a position to aim higher. After almost being 3-4.
How's that for perspective? Yes, this stuff sometimes can be that fragile.
Maybe this group will finish in the top 25, which hasn't happened on North Broad since 1979. Wouldn't that be ironic, after all the national pub they got a year ago.
"We never lost faith in ourselves," said senior quarterback Phillip Walker, a four-year starter. "Nothing ever changed on the inside. The older guys know we don't have many opportunities left. The fact that we were able to just keep taking it day-by-day is unbelievable. We were still having fun. We were afraid to let the guy next to you down.
"There's a lot to be done. It's only going to happen if we continue to take it a step at a time."
"It's all about the now," seconded senior running back Jahad Thomas, Walker's high-school teammate, who's scored multiple touchdowns in all six games he's played in this season. "I just don't look too far ahead. It will distract you. Our goal is to go 1-0 this week.
"We've been through ups and downs our whole career here. Even this year's start. And we lost our last two last year. We want it to end differently this time. It won't be easy. But that's what we're playing for."
At some point, every journey assumes its own identity. Just because. Last season was uniquely special for a school that had mostly wandered in the wilderness for way too long. For beating Penn State for the first time in forever, for almost beating Notre Dame, for ESPN's College GameDay visit, for Tyler Matakevich winning multiple national awards. All of that probably never happens again. Doesn't mean other things can't. That's what makes it a program instead of a one-hit wonder.
"When you're 1-2 or 3-3 and everyone's writing you off, you're kind of a little freer," said coach Matt Rhule. "There's not as much pressure on you, so you're just kind of locked into what you're doing. You say, 'Hey, let's just go get a win.' Now all of a sudden you're 5-3, first place, everyone's saying you control your own destiny, you start to put a little pressure on yourself. I try to remind them if you're playing differently now than you did last week or the week before, then you weren't playing right. You should play the same way all the time. I just try to remind them it's the process that wins games. They're understanding of that has gotten a little better.
"Every (AAC) game's a championship game. Two years ago we beat East Carolina, which was No. 21, to go 5-3. It was a huge emotional win. We played Memphis the following week on a Friday night at home. We could've become bowl eligible, which at the time was like, 'Oh my goodness.' It was the exact same scenario. But we didn't get it done (losing 16-13 on a last-play field goal after leading 10-0). We had to win our last game to get to 6-6. We know Cincinnati is dangerous. I think it's great that their vision has changed. It's just a little different, as each experience happens . . .
"It helps when you realize that if you don't play your best you can lose at home to Army. That one will bother us for a long time. Or if you don't put people away when you're up, like at Memphis. And how are you going to win at Penn State when you have that many penalties? Maybe we would have had a chance. Maybe. Then you watch them beat Ohio State. You learn from your mistakes. We want to finish at a high level, by asking them to play their best football. We'll see what happens."
Six months later, it still seems realistic enough.