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Temple could be UCF’s primary AAC East threat in 2018

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Geoff Collins’ Owls could make a run toward 10-plus wins if the pass defense holds up and the offense sustains last year’s late gains.

Massachusetts v Temple
Sam Franklin (36), Derrek Thomas (21), and Delvon Randall (2)
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

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Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Geoff Collins’ first season as Temple head coach was defined by three Thursdays:

Thursday, September 21

After losing a dud of a debut at Notre Dame, 49-16, Temple had survived lackluster performances against Villanova (16-13) and UMass (29-21) to move to 2-1. The offense was anything but impressive, however, and in one of the ugliest Thursday night games in the history of Thursday night games, the Owls got torched by USF in Tampa, 43-7.

There were 15 penalties and 16 punts, and Temple gained 85 total yards. Losing by 36 while allowing under five yards per play is difficult, but the Owls pulled it off. Quarterback Frank Nutile subbed in for struggling Logan Marchi, but he went just 4-for-12 with an interception and a sack, and for good measure one of his completions resulted in a fumble, too.

Thursday, November 2

The USF loss was the first in a string of four defeats in five games. Temple torched ECU but fell 20-13 to Houston, 28-24 to UConn (at home!), and 31-28 to Army in overtime. Marchi got hurt heading into the Army game, and Nutile went 20-for-30 for 290 yards and a touchdown in his absence; he brought the Owls back from 14-0 down to take a 28-21 lead, but the defense blinked, giving up a 16-yard touchdown pass with one second left in regulation, and Temple missed a 27-yard OT field goal wide left.

After a bye week, however, Temple saved its season. Nutile, now the full-time starter, found Adonis Jennings for touchdowns of 40 and 34 yards and Keith Kirkwood for an eight-yard score as the Owls surged to a 24-6 third-quarter lead. It was 34-13 in the fourth quarter before Navy scored twice late to make it more respectable. Nutile finished 22-for-30 for 289 and four TDs.

Temple would lose only to UCF the rest of the way. They won at Cincinnati and stomped Tulsa to complete a rally from 3-5 to 6-6 and eke out a Gasparilla Bowl bid.

Thursday, December 21

Temple laid waste to FIU in the Gasparilla Bowl. FIU quarterback Alex McGough got hurt on the Golden Panthers’ third offensive play, and Temple sacked backup Maurice Alexander seven times. Nutile went 18-for-28 for 254 yards and a 45-yard touchdown to Isaiah Wright, and the Owls cruised, 28-3.

Collins had to wait a while to get his first head-coaching shot. He scored his first defensive coordinator gig at Division III’s Albright College at the age of 26, then worked his way up to becoming a Georgia Tech position coach and then Nick Saban’s first Director of Player Personnel at Alabama in 2007. But then he bounced around: UCF linebackers coach for two years, FIU’s defensive coordinator for one, Mississippi State’s DC for four, Florida’s DC for two.

He was known mostly for his PJ Fleck-esque recruiting charisma and Can of SWAG, but he was also productive. His last two MSU defenses ranked 17th and 22nd in Def. S&P+, and his two Florida defenses ranked seventh and fourth, respectively. Both schools’ defenses trailed off when he left. And leave he did: he finally landed a head coaching gig at Temple, 70 miles east of, and 20 years beyond, Albright.

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl - Florida International v Temple
Geoff Collins
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Collins teams get silly on the bench and aggressive on the field. And in 2018, his Owls will have an excellent chance to build on last season’s late gains. Nutile and Wright, Temple’s leading receiver, are back, as are every running back and those responsible for about half of last year’s line starts.

The defense has three key linemen to replace and a secondary that’s a little thinner than last year’s, but the talent’s there, and per the 247Sports Composite, Collins just signed a class with 25 three-star prospects. Matt Rhule didn’t leave a bare cupboard for Collins, especially on defense, and we got a pretty sustained look at what a good Collins team could look like late last season.

UCF is the AAC East favorite until proven otherwise, but if the Knights fall back after a coaching change, the Owls could be poised to pounce.

Offense

A pass-first offense works a lot better when you can pass. Marchi — who transferred to East Tennessee State this offseason — was beginning to figure some things out when he lost his job to Nutile, and Nutile more than carried the progress forward.

Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude was working toward more of a pass-first attack in his last few years as Coastal Carolina’s OC and brought a bit more tempo to the table than Temple was accustomed to. It took a while, but there was clear growth.

  • Temple offense, first 5 games: Points per game: 16.2 | Yards per play: 4.3 | Avg. percentile performance: 21% | Turnovers per game: 2.0
  • Temple offense, last 8 games: Points per game: 30.6 | Yards per play: 6.2 | Avg. percentile performance: 64% | Turnovers per game: 1.5

Temple didn’t top 387 yards in the first five games, then gained 393 or more in each of the last eight. Five turnovers doomed any sort of upset bid against UCF, but the Owls were otherwise awesome offensively down the stretch.

Central Florida v Temple
Frank Nutile
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

In Jennings and Kirkwood, Patenaude has a couple of productive receivers to replace. Wright, Jennings, and Kirkwood all caught between 42 and 46 passes, and while Wright was the most well-rounded of the three, Kirkwood was efficient, and Jennings was very explosive.

At least Ventell Bryant, the team’s leading receiver in 2016, has another chance to find a groove in Patenaude’s offense; the senior-to-be missed three games and averaged just 9.7 yards per catch and 5 yards per target last season. Plus, junior Randle Jones and senior Brodrick Yancy flashed potential in limited opportunities last year, and Collins signed five three-star receivers and a three-star tight end this February. Five members of that freshman sextet are at least 6’3, and three are at least 210 pounds. At least one might be physically ready to contribute early.

Now just imagine what the Owls could do with a run game. Temple plummeted from 73rd to 118th in Rushing S&P+, getting stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on 24 percent of non-sack rushes, 123rd in FBS. Ryquell Armstead did some pretty nice things in the open field but never got there, and backup David Hood was a little more efficient but not at all explosive.

Armstead averaged nearly 6 yards per carry in 2016 but was battling either hamstring or toe injuries for much of the year. That was certainly part of the reason why his opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) disintegrated, from 44 percent to 30. Plus, backups Jager Gardner and Tyliek Raynor missed the entire season with injury as well. Meanwhile, the line was battling its own issues — only one player started all 13 games up front, and a whopping 10 players started at least once, about as much as you’ll ever see.

Last year’s injury trouble is this year’s competition, though. Armstead, Hood, Gardner, and the speedy Raynor are all back in the backfield — they’re joined by a pair of three-star freshmen in Kyle Dobbins and Onasis Neely as well.

Plus, six of the 10 linemen with starting experience are back, including sophomores Matt Hennessy and Vincent Picozzi. If nothing else, with injury trouble in the rear view, we could learn about the talent levels here. There seems to be quite a bit of it in the backfield, but we’ll see about the line.

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl - Florida International v Temple
Isaiah Wright
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Defense

Rhule and former defensive coordinator Phil Snow set the bar pretty high at Temple. The Owls ranked 24th or better in Def. S&P+ in each of their last three years in Philly, so while ranking 40th in 2017 would be impressive for most of the Group of 5, it was a setback here.

Things picked up for the D right around the time they picked up for the O, too. It wasn’t quite to the same degree, but it was enough to make a difference.

  • Temple defense, first 5 games: Points per game: 29.2 | Yards per play: 6.2 | Avg. percentile performance: 46% | Takeaways per game: 1.2
  • Temple defense, last 8 games: Points per game: 23.6 | Yards per play: 4.9 | Avg. percentile performance: 65% | Takeaways per game: 1.5

The Owls were outgained by 1.9 yards per play over those first five games, then outgained opponents by 1.3 per play thereafter. That’s a pretty significant overall shift. Defensive coordinator Taver Johnson left to become Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach in the offseason, but Collins’ promotion of LBs coach Andrew Thacker to DC should ensure decent continuity.

Temple was at its best on passing downs, ranking 24th in PD S&P+. We’ll see how that changes with some decent turnover in the front and back. Ends Sharif Finch and Jacob Martin are gone after combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks, and in the back, safety Sean Chandler and corners Mike Jones and Artrel Foster (combined: 6.5 TFLs, four INTs, 12 breakups) depart as well.

That’s quite a bit of production out the door — and I didn’t even mention tackle Julian Taylor (10 TFLs) — but quite a bit returns, too. Sophomore end Quincy Roche had 11.5 TFLs and seven sacks in a backup role, and four other linemen (end Dana Levine and tackles Michael Dogbe, Freddie Booth-Lloyd, and rising sophomore Dan Archibong) had at least a couple of TFLs. Toss in JUCO tackle Nickolos Madourie and seven three-star true or redshirt freshmen, and you’ve got massive potential up front.

Massachusetts v Temple
Quincy Roche
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In the back, there are plenty of assets:

  • Rock Ya-Sin will help. The Presbyterian graduate transfer will take Mike Jones’ spot as the Owls’ Key Grad Transfer Cornerback (Jones was from North Carolina Central) after picking off five passes and breaking up eight more last year.
  • Safety Delvon Randall is back as well; he’s recorded 12.5 TFLs and eight picks over the last two seasons.
  • Sophomore safety Keyvone Bruton is a former star recruit who appeared to have a standout spring.
  • There are veterans abound: at safety, junior Benny Walls and seniors Cequan Jefferson and Jyquis Thomas are still around, and at corner, junior Linwood Crump is back, and another former star recruit, junior Kareem Ali, still has time to put things together.

The run defense should remain sturdy, thanks to the return of four of last year’s top five tackles and basically every linebacker. A foursome of juniors — Shaun Bradley, Chapelle Russell, Sam Franklin, and William Kwenkeu — combined for 27 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed last season, and sophomore Isaiah Graham-Mobley has blitzing potential.

Presbyterian v Wake Forest
Rock Ya-Sin
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Special Teams

Temple was neither great nor terrible on special teams. Kicker Aaron Boumerhi was slightly below average, missing three under-40 field goals and two PATs, but he wasn’t bad, and Isaiah Wright was an all-or-nothing return man, taking a kick and a punt to the house but otherwise posting minimal averages. Both return, though Temple’s looking for a new punter after the departure of Alex Starzyk, whose kicks were neither long nor returnable.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Villanova NR 20.2 88%
8-Sep Buffalo 93 6.0 64%
15-Sep at Maryland 80 -2.7 44%
20-Sep Tulsa 108 9.8 71%
29-Sep at Boston College 48 -8.4 31%
6-Oct East Carolina 125 15.7 82%
13-Oct at Navy 85 -1.1 48%
29-Oct Cincinnati 88 4.6 60%
1-Nov at UCF 17 -18.3 15%
10-Nov at Houston 59 -6.5 35%
17-Nov USF 56 -1.9 46%
24-Nov at Connecticut 124 10.4 73%
Projected S&P+ Rk 81
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 95 / 53
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.3 (67)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 90 / 76
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -0.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (71%, 61%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (-0.6)

Temple was a different team late in 2017, and most of the reasons for that improvement are back. The pass defense is thinned out, and we don’t yet know whether the Owls will be able to run the ball effectively (the good news: there’s a low bar to clear there). But I’m pretty bullish.

S&P+ doesn’t take injury or coaching changes into account and sees only a team that fell from 32nd to 78th a season ago. With the turnover in the secondary, the Owls are projected to hold steady around 81st, which would mean something around a six- to seven-win season. That’s never going to be something to scoff at here — here’s your reminder that this program went 19 years without a winning season in the 1990s and 2000s — but I’m expecting a bit more.

S&P+ has Temple as the favorite in six games and as a one-possession underdog in four. I think something in the neighborhood of eight or nine regular season wins is exceedingly possible. Is that enough to catch UCF? Probably not, but the Owls will be fun, athletic, and dangerous in 2018. That’s good enough.

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