Temple could be one of the surprise teams in the American Athletic Conference this year.
Two years ago, the Owls bottomed out with a 2-10 finish but came back the next year with a much-improved defense to make the jump to 6-6 and bowl eligibility. Though they didn't get to play a bowl game, such dramatic improvement in the win total is promising, especially with so many starters returning.
Matt Rhule's squad finished third in this year's AAC East Division preseason poll, falling just a bit short of UCF and well below the predicted conference champion Cincinnati. But it wouldn't take much for Temple to make a run at the East Division title and an American championship game appearance.
The Owls return all 11 defensive starters, which is absolutely incredible for a defense that finished fourth in the country in scoring defense and 11th in yards allowed per play in 2014. They finished 16th in Football Outsiders' S&P overall defensive rankings.
The defense is led by linebacker Tyler Matakevich, a Connecticut native looking for his fourth season with over 100 tackles.
Unfortunately, offensive consistency kept them from capitalizing on such a good defense. Quarterback P.J. Walker is a talented junior with solid experience. He will need to lead an improved offense if Temple is to compete for the East crown. He threw for 231 yards and a touchdown against UConn last year, going 20-for-29 on passing attempts – good enough for a 147.3 passer rating. Temple had that game in hand so he didn't need to use his running ability, but the Huskies will need to be disciplined to neutralize Walker's dual-threat if this year's contest is going to be more competitive.
In addition to Walker, who was the team's second-leading rusher with 324 yards, Temple split the rushing load pretty evenly amongst its running backs last year between Kenneth Harper, Jahad Thomas and Jamie Gilmore. Of those three, only Harper has moved on, so the remaining two will probably be welcoming Zaire Williams and maybe even a few other talented options to the rotation. The Owls are very strong at this position, but their offensive coordinator favors the spread passing attack.
For a team looking to run a spread offense, Temple is lacking in receivers. Last year's leading receiver is gone and running back Jahad Thomas was the team's second-leading receiver. Additionally, the Owls have holes on the offensive line. UConn's defense will need to take advantage of those weaknesses for the Huskies to have a chance in the season finale this year at Lincoln Field.
If the Huskies are going to beat Temple this season, it will have to be in a defensive slugfest, with UConn possibly making up for offensive deficiencies with big plays on defense and special teams. Temple has a lot of defensive depth, so special teams might be tough, but if the Huskies can force a few turnovers or our experienced safeties can keep the passing game in check forcing them to run, UConn could keep it close and then find a way to win.
It's tough to know what might be on the line for what will be the final game of the season. A repeat of last year's 36-10 blowout would be a sour ending to a season during which most predict the Huskies will take their lumps. I don't think the Huskies will win this year, but hopefully they can keep the game competitive.