After an up-and-down preseason, the defending Eastern champions of the American Athletic Conference say they’re finally ready to start defending their crown.

But even after crushing Charlotte 48-20 Saturday at the Linc, Temple knows it won’t be easy.

“When you win, I think everyone looks at you differently,” said Jahad Thomas, who ran for 68 yards and a touchdown, caught three passes for 49 yards and is slowly rounding into form after missing the first two games with a hand injury. “We have a target on our back because we won our side of the conference last year. Everyone at the end of the year is trying to hold that trophy up. We don’t really worry about that. We just go out there and do what we need to do.”

They certainly did against the overmatched 49ers, overcoming a early 7-3 deficit by breaking the game open with 28 second quarter points, including Philip Walker touchdown passes of 51 and 40 yards to Adonis Jennings and Brodrick Yancy respectively.

That evens the Owls’ record at 2-2, with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte, losses to Army and Penn State. Not good enough, says Walker.

“I think the record should be different but there are learning curves to this game,” said Walker, who threw for 268 yards while Temple amassed 507 yards on offense. “We just have to keep building as a team. Now we have a whole new season to play. We are 0-0 and now its conference play. I’m looking forward to it.”

It starts with 2-2 SMU coming to town Saturday, before the Owls head on the road to Memphis and Central Florida. But to have a chance at winning the East again — and perhaps earning a shot for a rematch with defending AAC champ Houston, the heavy Western favorite — Temple needs more consistency than it’s shown throughout the preseason.

“We’re going to look at the whole preseason,” said defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike, who returned a fumble 20 yards to set the stage for Thomas’ 13-yard touchdown to make it 17-7. “We haven’t played to our full potential yet. I feel we’re going to look at the mistakes we made and correct them.”

Of greatest concerns are the 725 yards rushing they’ve allowed, with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley burning them for a late 55-yard score last week, then Charlotte’s Kalif Phillips taking it 66 to the house Saturday, along with a defense that has only five sacks. Last year the Owls had 32. 

“My gut would be were still not stout enough inside versus the run and the pass rush was not where it needed to be,” Matt Rhule agreed, trying to assess where his team is after four games. “It looks like we’re getting some penetration were just not getting home as much as we’d like to. And then we’re still taking too many silly penalties.”

He’s also didn’t like the way the 1-3 49ers were able to keep them off balance with their no-huddle offense, racking up 429 yards. SMU also runs the no huddle. 

“Tempo got to us, which means as we get ready for SMU we could have a lot of trouble with no huddle,” conceded Rhule, who probably doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s 60-40 shootout win over the Mustangs in Dallas. “A lot of these spread teams are doing a nice job. Everything is a run/pass option, so you’re playing the run and throwing the ball down the field.”

Offense, though, has been a different story, as the Owls multifaceted attack has put up 113 points since slogging through their 28-13 loss to Army in the opener. “I think as an offense we are just getting better,” said Walker, who’s thrown for five scores with just two interceptions since the three-pick opener. “We have so many weapons on offense and so many guys that can make a lot of plays and it shows. I’m just taking what the defense gives me, not forcing anything."

“I feel pretty good about who we are,” added Thomas. “But conference play starts next week and the little details that we are always preaching, we really need to fix those in order to do well.”

In other word for the defending Eastern champion Owls, let the defense begin.