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Temple might win ‘only’ 7-8 games this year, and that’s disappointing? Times have changed

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NCAA Football: East Carolina at Temple Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Just in case any of you had any delusions that college sports are about purity, fun and honest competition, you're kidding yourselves. It's a cold-hearted, calculating, bottom-line business. For many years, the Big East has specialized in being cold-hearted. What goes around comes around, and in losing its two premier football schools, the University of Miami and Virginia Tech, to the ACC, the Big East is getting what it deserves.

In 2001, the Big East conference made the announcement that it was kicking Temple's football program out of the league. [...] The conference chose to boot Temple despite the existence of pitiful and pathetic Rutgers, which has been an even bigger football doormat than Temple.

That's Philadelphia columnist Larry Atkins in the summer of 2003, writing about the Big East getting raided (for the first time, but definitely not the last) by the ACC.

Temple was so hopeless a program at the turn of the century that even when it was losing big programs and looking to replenish its stock, the Big East still chose to let the Owls walk at the end of the 2004 season. Rutgers stayed, UConn joined, and Temple got the boot.

The Owls had to go independent for a couple of years, missing out on a Conference USA invitation and settling in the MAC. It was never a great geographical fit — akin to New Mexico State joining the Sun Belt — but it was at least a home.

North Alabama head coach and three-time Division II national champion Bobby Wallace had gone just 4-18 in his first two years in charge when the conference first decided to ditch the Owls. Wallace rallied a bit, winning four games each year from 2000-02, but as the Big East's decision became final, recruiting cratered and so did Wallace. He went 3-31 from 2003-05 and was let go, eventually returning to North Alabama. He and his Lions made the Division II championship game in 2016. The guy can coach; he just couldn’t coach Temple.

At the time of Wallace’s dismissal, barely 11 years ago, Temple was maybe the hardest job in FBS, a football program with an uncertain future, at a land-locked school without an on-campus stadium, in a metro area not known for overflow prep talent.

Big East membership brought some big teams to town, but it didn’t enhance recruiting enough to make a difference. But then Al Golden came showed up.

I’ve written a lot about how Boise State became powerful by making a good hire, then a great one, then an amazing one, etc. Coaching hires are almost impossible to nail consistently — insert go-to examples here (Oklahoma hiring John Blake before Bob Stoops, Florida hiring Ron Zook between Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Alabama hiring Mike Shula before Nick Saban, etc.) — but if you make a few good ones in a row, you can improve your lot in life. Temple has done just that.

  • Al Golden: great hire. The Penn State alum and former Virginia defensive coordinator stripped the house down to the studs, went 1-11 and finished dead last in S&P+ in his first season, then began the upward move: 111th and 4-8 in 2007, 77th and 5-7 in 2008. Temple won 17 games in 2009-10 and made their first bowl in 30 years. Golden left for Miami and was replaced by Florida offensive coordinator/Central Connecticut alum/all-around dude Steve Addazio. Miami fans might think poorly of him, but before his arrival there, he had pulled off one of the most impressive coaching performances in a long, long time.
  • Steve Addazio: decent hire. Addazio wasn’t around very long, but he stuck the landing the one time he absolutely needed to. Temple went 9-4 and surged to 45th in S&P+ in 2011, and in March 2012, the university scored a re-invitation into the Big East, this time for all sports. The Big East would become the AAC and lose its power conference status soon after, but Temple was still upgrading. Of course, the Owls then went 4-7 in 2012, and Addazio left for Boston College.
  • Matt Rhule: incredible hire. Under Addazio, a good defense had begun to lose its way, and an improved offense wasn’t making up the difference. Rhule needed a reset season of his own (2-10 in 2013) but engineered stunning, linear progress thereafter: 6-6 and 81st in S&P+ in 2014, 10-4 and 55th in 2015, 10-4, AAC champs, and 32nd in 2016.
  • Geoff Collins: ???

Temple’s 34-10 win over Navy in the 2016 AAC title game was Rhule’s last. He left for Baylor, and the Owls missed out on a shot at a program-best 11th win with a disappointing performance against Wake Forest in the Military Bowl.

Still, everything changed under Rhule. Temple went from hard-job success story to seeming like a far less difficult job. The stadium issue is still as unsettled as ever, and Philadelphia isn’t suddenly producing 40 three-star recruits per year, but from first Golden, then Rhule, emerged a blueprint for how Temple can succeed.

In the 11 seasons since Golden arrived, Temple has not yet produced an offense better than 64th in Off. S&P+. But the Owls ranked between 37th and 70th in Def. S&P+ every year from 2007-11, and after a two-year reset, they ranked in the top 25 each of the last three years. You can build a decent offense and killer defense in North Philly. And now it’s up to former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to keep the good vibes (and low point totals) going.


2016 in review

2016 Temple statistical profile.

Temple’s defense was excellent out of the gates; the national average for yards per play is around 5.8 in a given year, and the Owls allowed greater than 5.6 only twice, against outstanding Penn State and USF offenses.

The offense, however, took some time to round into form under first-year head coach Glenn Thomas. The line and receiving corps each had key pieces to replace, and the offense was below average for about half the season.

Things picked up in mid-October, however.

  • First 7 games (4-3): Avg. percentile performance: 58% (~top 55) | Avg. yards per play: Owls 5.6, Opp 4.8 (plus-0.8)
  • Next 6 games (6-0): Avg. percentile performance: 77% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: Owls 6.4, Opp 4.5 (plus-1.9)

After a 34-27 loss to Memphis, Temple began to figure things out. The Owls eked past UCF in Orlando, 26-25, then romped, beating their last six AAC opponents by an average score of 34-11. They beat good USF and Navy teams by a combined 40 points.

They played hungover in the bowl game, giving up 31 consecutive first-half points before embarking on a furious comeback to lose only 34-26. But what a team this was over the final two months of the regular season.


Offense

Temple offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Geoff Collins has an impeccable defensive résumé and a hardscrabble, work-your-way-up track record that should play well in Philly. The Western Carolina grad was named defensive coordinator at Division III Albright in 1997 at age 25, then took over the defense at Western Carolina in 2002 before landing at the FBS level. He served as DC at FIU, Mississippi State, and Tulane, trademarking an aggressive, swaggering (on and off the field) brand of defense along the way.

So the odds are strong that the Temple defense will remain mean and exciting. Great. What about the offense? Will Collins be able to figure anything out that Rhule et al couldn’t?

For an affirmative answer to that, Collins turned to Dave Patenaude. Patenaude was Joe Moglia’s offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina over the last five seasons. He established consistent run success in Conway, S.C., but late in his tenure there, he seemed to be trying to create more of a pass-first attack. It didn’t stick because CCU couldn’t keep a quarterback healthy, but it makes his intentions a bit unclear at this stage.

Patenaude has hinted at more of an up-tempo style, but we’ll see if Temple has the efficiency to pull that off. Temple produced plenty of big plays over the last couple of years, but inefficiency let the Owls down at times.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Temple
Ryquell Armstead
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Here are some of the pieces Patenaude inherits:

  • RB Ryquell Armstead. The junior exploded in 2016, topping incumbent Jahad Thomas’ numbers in just about every category. He had 20 carries for 210 yards in the win over USF, then posted 20 for 133 against UConn two weeks later and 10 for 76 in the AAC title game win. He showed far greater efficiency potential than the all-or-nothing Thomas, and his “alls” were a little bigger than Thomas’ as well. He will be the offense’s rock with Thomas now a Dallas Cowboy.
  • WRs Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings. The trio of 6’3 wideouts (Kirkwood is big enough that he moonlighted at defensive end this spring) combined for 123 catches and 2,017 yards at 9.9 yards per target last year. Thomas was a scary receiving threat, and tight end Romond Deloatch is gone, but these three were the heartbeat of the passing game, and they’re all back. So is Brodrick Yancy, a smaller option who averaged 8.1 yards per target.
  • Five offensive linemen with starting experience. Temple has to replace second-round pick Dion Dawkins but, among its returners, gets back three 2016 starters and senior guard Brian Carter, a 2015 starter.

Temple played quite a few bad defenses in 2016, so the raw numbers may have overstated the potential a hair, but there’s still obvious upside here. (Plus, there are plenty of bad defenses once again on the schedule.)

At least, there is if a quarterback emerges. Sophomore and 2016 second-stringer Logan Marchi and three three-star prospects — junior Frank Nutile, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo, and true freshman Todd Centeio — embarked on the beginning of a QB battle this spring, and the fight will continue into August.

Centeio and Marchi bring solid mobility to the table, while Nutile and Russo might have the best arms. There’s variety — a very good thing, as Patenaude can go a couple of different ways with his intended offensive identity — but there’s no surefire success.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Temple vs Wake Forest
Adonis Jennings
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Temple defensive radar

Under Rhule, Temple won with offensive explosions and a dynamite defense. We’ll see how much the offensive identity changes, but it should be more of the same for the defense. In terms of raw defensive averages, unadjusted for opponent, Collins’ Florida defense was almost a mirror image of Temple’s last year.

  • Success Rate: Florida ninth, Temple 10th
  • IsoPPP (explosiveness): Florida 42nd, Temple 56th
  • Finishing Drives: Florida seventh, Temple 26th

Temple had a better run defense, while Florida was better against the pass, but both defenses were ultra aggressive, well rounded, and willing to risk big plays in the name of turnovers and three-and-outs but pretty good at avoiding big plays, too.

Collins and defensive coordinator Taver Johnson (a former defensive backs coach at Ohio State, Arkansas, and Purdue) do inherit a defense that has some holes to fill. Rhule recruited a lot of front-seven talent, but all-world end Hasson Reddick is gone, as are all three starting linebackers and two other starting linemen. That’s a lot of churn to overcome.

SMU v Temple
Michael Dogbe (98) and offensive lineman James McHale (74)
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Junior tackles Michael Dogbe and Freddie Booth-Lloyd should serve as nice anchors, but the key to success up front could be young former star recruits. Four-star sophomore tackle Karamo Dioubate and mid-three-star sophomore linebackers Chapelle Russell, William Kwenkeu, and Sam Franklin represent the next generation of Owl defenders, but after easing into roles last year, they’ll be thrust into the spotlight. Kwenkeu and Franklin were working with the first string this spring, and Dioubate should be, at worst, the top backup tackle.

The key could be the defensive end position. Reddick, Praise Martin-Oguike, and tight end/pass rusher Romond Deloatch combined for a patently absurd 39.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks last year, allowing the Owls to generate major pressure without blitzing. There are countless replacement candidates, from seniors Jacob Martin and Sharif Finch, to six freshmen (three redshirt, three true), to receiver Keith Kirkwood. But one way or another, the Owls will have to figure out how to generate pressure.

If Temple has a generally competent pass rush, the DBs will take it from there. Safeties Delvon Randall and Sean Chandler combined for 9.5 TFLs, six interceptions, and six breakups last year, and veteran corners Artrel Foster, Derrek Thomas, and Cequan Jefferson are joined by a potential stud transfer: Mike Jones was a lockdown corner (and phenomenal punt returner) for NC Central last year but decided to ply his trade at a higher level before going to the pros.

It would be difficult for even an elite recruiting team to lose the talent Temple loses on defense without at least a temporary stumble. This will likely be the Owls’ first year without a top-25 defense since 2013, but with this talent and athleticism, it’s hard to imagine that stumble being too lengthy or significant. Say, top 50 this year and top 30 in 2018?

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Temple vs Navy
Delvon Randall (2) and Sean Chandler (3)
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The addition of Jones might have more of an impact on Temple’s special teams than its secondary. In 10 returns for NCCU last year, he gained 220 yards and scored two touchdowns. If he finds similar success at the FBS level, then the combination of Jones and either Aaron Boumerhi or Austin Jones at place-kicker gives the Owls a couple of solid special teams anchors. And the upside grows if all-or-nothing kick returner Isaiah Wright becomes a little more consistent.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Notre Dame 17 -15.5 19%
9-Sep Villanova NR 23.8 92%
15-Sep Massachusetts 111 16.1 82%
21-Sep at South Florida 56 -4.2 40%
30-Sep Houston 49 -0.1 50%
7-Oct at East Carolina 100 8.5 69%
14-Oct Connecticut 125 20.8 88%
21-Oct at Army 102 9.3 70%
3-Nov Navy 71 5.3 62%
10-Nov at Cincinnati 75 1.5 54%
18-Nov Central Florida 78 6.9 65%
25-Nov at Tulsa 77 1.8 54%
Projected S&P+ Rk 67
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 90 / 30
Projected wins 7.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.5 (76)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 79 / 74
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 6.0
2016 TO Luck/Game 0.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (58%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.7 (-0.7)

Depending on your view of Steve Addazio, Temple is either 2-for-3 or 3-for-3 in its last three hires since Bobby Wallace went 0-11 in 2005. Golden, Addazio, and Rhule combined to completely change what we think Temple is capable of as a football program. The limitations are still obvious, but we know Temple can produce a hard-hitting defense and a big-play offense and win a lot of games, and the odds are pretty good that Collins will do something similar.

It’s hard to imagine Temple avoiding at least a couple of steps backwards in 2017, however. The Owls have to replace a first-round defensive end, a second-round offensive lineman, a multi-year starting quarterback, an explosive running back, and all three starting linebackers. Even if the replacements provide reason for optimism, S&P+ says Temple will be more like a top-70 team than a top-40 team in 2017, and I think I agree. I also think the 2018 Owls could be pretty ferocious.

Even with a projected step backwards, though, Temple is looking at probably a seven- or eight-win year. S&P+ projects at least a 40 percent win probability in 11 of 12 games, and like so many other AAC teams, the Owls’ fortunes will be determined by relative tossups — they have probability between 40 and 65 percent in six games.

A coaching change is always scary when you’re coming off of two of your best ever seasons, and we technically don’t know if Collins will be a good head coach until he proves it. We also don’t know how he’ll recruit; his first, abbreviated Temple signing class had an average rating barely higher than UMass’.

Still, he fits the Temple profile and checks a lot of boxes. And he takes on a job a lot less hard than his predecessors did. That’s enough for now.


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