ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Greatest ever.

As in, nobody who came before had done more.

It's the ultimate distinction.

Temple has been playing football since 1894. Much of what's gone down on North Broad wasn't exactly memorable. On Tuesday, this group of Owls was playing for its own place in program history, in a year when a bunch of folks thought it would take a step backwards.

Four years ago, the seniors on this team started their careers with six losses. They finished 2-10 in Matt Rhule's coaching debut. Who knew what the future had in store?

This season they won their last seven, to get to 10-3 for the second straight year and give the program its first conference title in nearly a half-century. If they could beat 6-6 Wake Forest in the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where earlier this month they had beaten Navy by 24 in the American Athletic final, they'd become the first Temple team to win 11 times.

It would have made for some story, particularly if you watched the program struggle mightily not that long ago. Too bad the operative words now are "would have."

"We were trying to be the best Temple team," said interim coach Ed Foley, who has been part of this for close to a decade, following the 34-26 loss. "We're tied for the best Temple team. That doesn't sound (as) great.

"Right now it pains me. I can't even describe it. I know it's only going to get worse, when it really settles in. It's really, really disappointing. You hope your kids take something away from this. Winning games is something that's really precious, and hard to do."

We'll never know what might have happened had Rhule not left three weeks ago to take the job at Baylor. Not that it matters anymore. That's the way college football works. A new era is about to begin under former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, a close friend of Rhule. Like Rhule, he'll start his era with a game at Notre Dame next September. And like this team, it will have some unfinished stuff to address.

"The good thing is, we know the team we're leaving is going to get it done," said senior offensive tackle Dion Dawkins, who will play his next game in the NFL. "They're a reflection of us. I'm a big 'Everything happens for a reason' guy. It just wasn't meant to be. But the young guys will make it happen."

The Owls trailed by 24 in the second quarter. Wake lost its starting quarterback to an injury early in the third. Foley, who should survive his third coaching transition, said his guys would battle to the last whistle as he headed to the locker room at halftime. They did. It wasn't quite enough. And Wake Forest head coach and onetime Villanova offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, a good friend of Foley, won for the second time in seven games (three of those losses were against Florida State, Louisville and Clemson).

The Owls were in the same position last year, after starting 7-0, but lost their bowl game to Toledo. This group was 3-3 and had to go 70 yards in four plays in the closing 32 seconds with no timeouts to overcome a five-point deficit at Central Florida. And everything had gone right for Temple since then. Nobody said it had to have a happy ending. Another opportunity that you can't get back. Still . . .

"I'm very proud that we won a championship," said four-year starter Phillip Walker, who played most of the game with an injured right ring finger and may go down as the best Temple quarterback ever. "We've been through a lot. But that's something that can never be taken away from us."

Temple has played in five bowls, including the inaugural Sugar in 1935 under the legendary Pop Warner. Its two wins came 32 years apart. It figures to get many more bids in the current landscape. That doesn't make this missed moment any easier to digest, if only because the Owls had come so far. Since their freshman season. And throughout this one. Even amid the chaotic nature of these last few weeks.

Rhule was surely watching from Waco, before he watched his new team play in the Cactus Bowl. He recruited these guys, endured and celebrated with them. Yet business is business. And so it goes.

Maybe Rhule would have taken the Owls to a New Year's Bowl. Maybe Collins will. That's the next chapter. This one was still pretty special, especially after those rough initial strides. It just could have stood alone. And that might be the lingering image, fair or whatever.

"We're still champions," said running back Jahad Thomas, who won a New Jersey high-school title when he and Walker were senior teammates at Elizabeth. "We came here and did what we said we were going to do. We didn't get it done tonight, but when we have our reunions in 10 or 20 years, we'll still be able to share that."

It's some legacy, especially when stacked up against all that came before.

"You have to treat every game like it's the biggest one in your life," Foley said. "That's the real lesson. But what they've done the last two years says a lot about them. We always talk about leaving the program in better shape than you found it. They've done that."

And in the overall, it means so much more than just a consolation prize.

@mikekerndn