If you can’t remember when Temple football was bad, you’re simply too young. Not only was Temple bad, they were bad enough to get kicked out of the worst BCS conference.
After a 10-2 finish and win in the Garden State Bowl in 1979, the Owls entered football purgatory. Sure there were some bright spots along the way, like Paul Palmer finishing second in the Heisman race in 1986, or their upset of #14 Virginia Tech, but for the most part it was bad. The worst of it came after the Owls joined the Big East.
America’s Worst Program
In 1991, the Big East, one of the country’s best basketball conferences, decided to start playing football. The new conference brought together, Miami, Temple, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Boston College. While Temple lacked the pedigree of most of the other schools, they were not a bad fit. After all, they were well within the geographical footprint, and in a time when markets were everything, Temple only competed with Penn State for the Philadelphia TV market.
Over the coming years, the idealism failed as the Owls reached new levels of futility. In their 14-year stay in the conference, the Owls went 28-126 overall, and 14-80 in league play. The Owls lost their first 27 conference games, and went 1-38 in the Big East from 1991-1996. Naturally, the Big East had enough and pulled the plug on the Owls in 2001, with 2004 being their last season.
Leaving the Big East did not stop Temple’s free fall, as they embarked on a two-year independent journey. In two years as an independent, the Owls went 1-22, outscored by an average score of 43-10, losing by sixty points four times, and by fifty an additional time.
A Revival in The MAC
Despite this futility, the MAC took Temple in because, well, markets, and under Al Golden, the Owls began the long trek back to respectability. In their first year in the MAC, the Owls improved to 4-8 including a close 22-17 loss to Big East co-champ, Connecticut, who spent most of the year ranked. (Yes that seriously happened, all of it.)
Two years later, the Owls made their first bowl since 1979, an appearance in the EagleBank Bowl against UCLA, which they ultimately lost 30-21 but not before racing to a 21-7 lead. In 2010, Temple went 8-4 with a 30-16 win over Fiesta Bowl participant UConn (saying that phrase never gets old), but missed out on a bowl. Luckily, the next year, they went bowling after another 8-4 finish and made easy work of Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl.
While Temple was on the rise, their old home was crumbling. The Big East struggled from defections, with Syracuse, Pitt, and Louisville all departing for the ACC, while West Virginia left for the Big 12 and Rutgers the Big Ten. With few options at their disposal during the realignment craze of 2011-2013, the Big East looked to Boise State and San Diego State and a litany of C-USA schools to weather the storm. They also reluctantly called back an old friend.
Like someone whose ex got more attractive after high school, the Big East readmitted Temple for the 2012 season. In the conference’s last season, the Owls went 5-6, but found a permanent home in the now American for the forseeable future.
Finally, Lets Talk About 2016
While all of that seems long-winded, it is crucial to telling the rise of Temple football to their current state at the start of the 2016 season. Matt Rhule took the Owls to heights that seemed impossible to the college football world nearly a decade ago. In 2015, the Owls beat Penn State for the first time since 1943, played on ABC Saturday Night Football against Notre Dame, and played in the AAC Title game, losing a close game to Houston.
While no one considered Temple a joke anymore, they looked weaker before 2016, losing many key pieces, including Butkus award winner Tyler Matekevich. The concerns seemed to be right after the first game as the Owls lost 28-13 at home to an Army team that went 2-10 the year before.
The Owls rebounded the next two weeks with a win over Stony Brook and a close loss to Penn State, where the Owls nearly erased a 10-point deficit with under eight minutes to play. Temple followed this up with two straight blowout wins over Charlotte and SMU.
A 34-27 loss to Memphis followed, as the Owls dominated the statistics, outgaining the Tigers by over 200 yards, but giving up a pick-six and kick return touchdown in the Thursday night game.
The first half of the season ended with 2015 looking like a flash in the pan and the Owls on their way to an average season. The next game against UCF looked to confirm this, with the Knights taking an early 25-7 lead. The Owls turned the game and their season around by scoring 19 unanswered, with the last six coming on a eight-yard pass from PJ Walker to Keith Kirkwood with a second left for a 26-25 victory.
The following week, the Owls completed their sweep of their Florida AAC counterparts with a 46-30 win over USF, who finished 11-2 with a #25 ranking in the AP Poll. Ryquell Armstead ran for 210 yards on only 20 carries in the win.
While the offense carried the load in the first couple weeks, the defense took control in the final four weeks of the regular season, allowing 23 points, with shutouts against UConn and Tulane. The Owls’ six-game win streak to end the season clinched the AAC East for them and set up a date on Championship Weekend against Navy.
The Midshipmen, were frontrunners for the New Years’ Six along with Western Michigan, boasting a stronger schedule than the Broncos, including a win over Notre Dame, despite two more losses. The Owls resume paled in comparison to the Broncos, but they could still play spoiler.
Temple started fast, taking a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, when freak injuries to Will Worth and Prince Tyson-Gulley on the same play doomed the Midshipmen in a 34-10 loss. Temple held the vaunted Navy option attack to 168 rushing yards as they were forced to the air for much of the second half.
Payback is an Owl
With that win, a journey 25 years in the making was complete. It turned out, revenge was a dish best served 15 years later, as the Owls won the conference that kicked them out. More impressively, it was the Owls’ first conference championship since their 1967 MAC title, as in the Middle Atlantic Conference, when they went 4-0 in conference play.
Breakups are hard. We all know it. Temple’s 2016 championship run proves that anyone can recover from a breakup, even if it’s a half a decade later. So, whenever your kids tell you about how good Temple is, tell them about the long journey of despair and then redemption, they took.