FOUR YEARS ago, Temple's freshmen lost the first six football games they were a part of on North Broad. And 10 of the first 11. As did their first-year coach.

Now they have a chance to go out by winning the last six regular-season games of their careers. And maybe get the second conference title in program history, which would be the first in 49 years. They could also set a school record for victories, one year after the Owls matched the 1979 team by winning 10 times.

All this in a season when most of the so-called experts figured they were probably going to take a step back, just because. Well, if the step back from 10-4 turns out to be 9-3 with two games left, then things must be in pretty decent shape.

They still have to take care of business by beating East Carolina (3-8, 1-6 American Athletic Conference) as three-touchdown favorites Saturday night in South Philly. They were favored by two TDs in the home opener against Army and lost by 15. So stuff does happen. Still, it sure looks as if the Owls (8-3, 6-1) are going to take the East Division for the second straight year - despite not being favored in the preseason poll either time - and play Navy next week in the final.

Did we mention that this group was 3-3 and trailing by five points with 32 seconds left, 70 yards to go and no timeouts on Oct. 15 at Central Florida? Four straight completions later, their season had been salvaged. They haven't come close to losing since, and haven't given up a touchdown in more than 10 quarters.

"This team's better than last year," said Matt Rhule, who already has compiled the best two-season Temple win total over these past 25 games. "It's just a more complete team. This team's had to fight through a lot more (adversity). I'm proud of them. It's been so rewarding. We just have to make sure it's rewarding on Saturday . . .

"These (seniors) came here with a new coach. Some of them committed before I ever got the job. They didn't know who I was. It was blind faith. They went through some ridiculous things to get this built. We went through a lot together. When they walk off that field, it's going to be the last time they play (at home). I just want them to have no regrets.

"They came in and played before they were ready to play, before they should have played. When you do that, it's hard. The kids coming in now play a very small role, if they are playing. These kids were out there playing against Louisville and Central Florida, making mistakes that cost us games. And feeling the pressure of it. They've come so far. You want to establish something that's successful for a sustainable amount of time, not go (up and down)."

Rhule was here with Al Golden when the culture got a face-lift. The Owls did win 26 times from 2009-11, which includes the first of Steve Addazio's two seasons. But they never won a game in the Mid-American Conference over a team that finished with a winning record. And they went 4-7 in 2012, their one year back in a Big East that was no longer the Big East, which had kicked them out nearly a decade earlier.

You have to think that a bad year going forward might be more along the lines of say 7-5. There's a difference. And in no way is it minor.

"When we got here, there weren't too many leaders on the team," said senior running back Jahad Thomas, who has scored 35 touchdowns the last two years. "Coach Rhule wanted the players to know what it's like to feel like they're winners. I'm one of those people that's always a believer. I believed we were going to be pretty successful when we became older guys. You have to look at it from the perspective of where we started. We've just continued to build on that. We went from 2-10 to 6-6, 10-4 and now we have an opportunity to be one of the best teams in Temple history."

When he and quarterback Phillip Walker were at Elizabeth (N.J.) High, they won once as freshmen. Two years later, they played for a state title. As seniors, they lifted the trophy.

"It's crazy," Thomas said. "We talked about that so much, even before coming into college. It's not like it's surprising (to us) now. We just kind of had this feeling that it was going to go just like high school. As you get older, you get better. It is ironic. It kind of went exactly the same way. It shows the work we've put in. But we haven't won anything yet. Your biggest game is always the next one. You just can't let it get too big."

By this point they know what it's like to take Notre Dame to the wire with the entire nation watching. Or play in an AAC title game on the road against a team that would finish eighth in the nation. Or beat Penn State for the first time since Pearl Harbor. It's been that kind of journey. And it's hardly over. The best could even be ahead of them.

"This is really what you want," said Walker, a four-year starter. "We've been playing for so long, we should enjoy every moment of what we have left.

"At times we'd sit there and think, 'Man, are we ever going to win a game?' Especially our first year. We just kept getting better and better. It's been a daily process, as a team. Now we just go out and play our brand of football, try to play to our best, and the young guys will be right here with us."

One day, they'll have their story to tell. It just won't be quite the same.

@mikekerndn