Temple football coach Matt Rhule is like many in his profession, willing to focus only on what is next and not look back or ahead until the season is over.

So when Rhule got introspective when asked about what this year's team has accomplished, he dropped, for him, sort of a bombshell.

"This team is better than the team last year," Rhule said during his Tuesday press conference. "That is no disrespect to the team last year. They have just had a different path and journey."

Temple is 8-3 overall, 6-1 in the American Athletic Conference. A win on Saturday against visiting East Carolina (3-8, 1-6) would clinch a second straight East Division title. A loss by South Florida against Central Florida would also clinch for Temple.

The Owls, who at one point appeared in a struggle just to be bowl eligible, have won five in a row. This came after Temple was hit hard by graduation from a 10-4 team that tied a single-season school record for wins and beat Penn State for the first time since 1941.

Many expected the Owls to take a dip this season, and while this year's team lost by a touchdown to Penn State (which has since become a top 10 team) it has been a unit like its coach, mentally and physically tough and extremely resilient.

Temple had three players from last year drafted in the NFL: Tavon Young (fourth round to Baltimore), Matt Ioannidis (fifth round to Washington) and Tyler Matakevich (seventh round to Pittsburgh).

There were more big names on that team.

This one has been built on depth, and it's been needed because the current team has suffered more key injuries. For instance, top running back Jahad Thomas missed the first two games with a thumb injury. His backup and current leading rusher, Ryquell Armstead, missed Saturday's 31-0 win at Tulane with an undisclosed injury.

The top defensive player, safety Sean Chandler, was sidelined four games with a bruised right knee. Junior kicker Austin Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury and has been capably replaced by freshman walk-on Aaron Boumerhi.

Others such as linebacker Avery Williams have played through a succession of injuries. Leading tackler Stephaun Marshall missed one game due to injury.

"You look at the team in totality and where we are now, this is a team that is just a more complete team," Rhule said. "They lost a strong senior class and had to incorporate more of the young guys."

An example of a young player filling a key role is sophomore safety Delvon Randall, who has started every game after being a reserve last year and has emerged as among the defensive leaders.

Freshman Isaiah Wright, while not a starter, has played everywhere from running back to receiver to Wildcat quarterback.

Last year, Matakevich was a true leader and brought so much attention to the program by winning several honors, including the Chuck Bednarik Award as the college football defensive player of the year.

"This team isn't a couple of stars leading the way and everybody else sort of following," Rhule said.

Rhule also says this is a more proficient offensive team, and the statistics bear that out. Temple averaged 29.8 point per game last year. This season the Owls are averaging 32.3 points per game.

The surprise is on defense. Last year, defense was Temple's calling card. It allowed 20.1 points per game.

This season, after consecutive shutouts over Connecticut and Tulane, Temple is allowing 18.5 points, which is first in the AAC and 14th nationally.

Of course, last year's team did win the division and played in the AAC title game, losing to Houston, 24-13.

This year's team is on the verge of clinching the division, an accomplishment that would make the comparisons to last season's squad even more valid.

Notes. Armstead practiced on Tuesday, but Rhule wouldn't say if he would play on Saturday. He has rushed for 807 yards and 11 touchdowns. . . . Safety Nate L. Smith and receiver Brodrick Yancy are out this week with injuries, according to Rhule. . . . Ventell Bryant, who had nine receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown last week, was dinged in practice, and Rhule didn't know about his availability.

@sjnard