Temple will play football for a championship on ABC Saturday (at noon). Read that sentence again. College football fans and Philadelphians couldn't have imagined such a statement to be true as recently as a few years ago but it's true. The Owls face Navy in Annapolis with a chance to win the AAC and get into a New Year's Six bowl.
Here's a quick look at 10 story lines to know heading into the showdown for conference supremacy:
1. Second chance
The Owls, 10-2 in 2015, have been here before. In their first ever conference championship appearance of any kind last season they faltered big time, falling to No. 17 Houston 24-13. A year later sitting at 9-3, Temple will return to the title bout looking to show up this time — against No. 20 Navy. With a bevy of returning players, a wiser and more experienced squad is looking to take advantage of a second chance.
2. The turnaround
Matt Rhule's squad was more or less left for dead after starting the season 3-3, but then the Owls rallied off six straight wins and here we are.
Their recent success has been fueled by one of college football's most dominating defenses. The Owls have allowed the third fewest yards per game and second fewest through the air of 128 NCAA programs. They are also in the top 10 in points allowed.
3. Emerging power
It's a big game but Rhule, who is looking to build something truly great in North Philly, isn't worried about the implications of possibly being the AAC champs.
"To me, winning the game does not signify anything about the program," the coach told media members this week. "We have gotten to where we are — it's another football game, maybe just to me — I think with what the kids have done and with how may wins they have and with them all graduating, many of them have jobs. We are on national TV and the brand is out there … there's a lot of people all across Temple and Philadelphia who have sacrificed for the program. When they see us on national TV we hope it's something they can feel really proud of but we will come back and try and do the same thing next year."
4. Revenge on the mind
Temple recently faced Navy in 2014 and fell 31-24. Does that give the Owls an advantage?
"When you play someone the second time … it can be a little bit harder," Rhule said of Navy. "It's harder to get back, the energy is harder to get back the second time because 'OK it's done.'"
5. Health of stars
There are some important injury issues Owls fans need to pay attention to — particularly at the quarterback and running back positions.
"[RB Jahad Thomas] will play the whole game," Rhule said. "We are kind of going into it — as of Tuesday — if we played today, [QB Phillip Walker] wouldn't play and [RB Ryquell Armstead] wouldn't play."
6. Stopping the triple option
The Midshipmen run for 342 yards per game on the ground. That's the second most in all of football — and more than many teams earn in total offense. They run the triple option, always a difficult scheme to stop.
"It's really power football, it's a lot like us," Rhule said. "We don't run the option, we line up and run downhill on you, but they have they ability to run the option. There's a true power element which is why they've posted historic numbers the last couple weeks."
7. Ball control
The Owls are fifth in the country in time of possession, but it will be hard to keep the ball for long with Navy on the other sideline.
"When you play Navy you know you're not going to get a lot of drives," Rhule said, "so you better make the most of it while you're at it."
8. Watch out for the pass
Navy quarterback Will Worth doesn't just anchor the triple option, he can throw the ball, too.
"He's an extremely accurate quarterback," Rhule said. "He throws the ball really well and when he's not he scrambles and makes plays."
9. Bowl implications
The winner Saturday could get a ticket to a New Year's Six bowl like the Cotton Bowl. The loser will likely be relegated to a post-Christmas bowl like the South Florida Bowl. Clearly, a big difference in prestige for the winner's postseason destination.
10. Collecting hardware
Nine Temple players were named to an All-AAC first, second or honorable mention team this week. First team honors went to OL Dion Dawkins and DL Haason Reddick. Second team to RB Jahad Thomas, DL Praise Martin-Oguike, LB Avery Williams, DB Sean Chandler and K Aaron Boumerhi. TE Colin Thompson and LB Stephaun Marshall earned honorable mention.