Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 5 Temple.
By the end of the 2016 college football season, the Temple of old (“old” being two years prior) seemed a distant memory. By that time, Matt Rhule had transformed Temple into a 10-win program that showed up in back-to-back AAC title games, even winning one. The Owls boasted a delightfully entertaining offense and a dominant top-20 defense—it was almost enough to excuse the Temple athletic department’s ongoing plans to drop a $135 million stadium in fucking North Philly.
While the Owls currently look like they’re not going to make it three straight years of double-digit wins, making Rhule’s run seem all the more impressive, they at least secured a spot on the game’s map; now, just four games into the 2017 campaign, they once again look like the Temple we all came to know and love and feel pity for.
Just a couple years ago, Rhule inherited a mess of a a two-win team that was left behind by Steve Addazio (for Boston College, too—the least these guys could do is leave the Owls for somewhere decent). Of course, Addazio got his, popping in for one 9-4 season and another 4-7 one; the sole good year (and, probably, the years of being Urban Meyer’s assistant coach) was enough for BC, though. Meanwhile, the team, and Temple athletics in general, was a weight on the school, so much so that the Owls brass cut seven sports in 2013 rather than drop the football team down to a lower playing division. At the time, Temple wasn’t much more than the same floundering program it had been since its inception; save a few Golden years, the Owls were a laughing stock and routinely lived in the red just to field the football team. But as Duke continues to prove, even if nobody comes to games, the shittiest of the shitty teams can come around—all you need is a solid coach, a group of hungry assistants ready to hit the recruiting trail, and, oh yeah, a popular basketball team to subsidize your financial losses.
Rhule was this solid coach—okay, he was a lot better than solid, and he was rewarded handsomely for it. Rhule followed the Al Golden recipe, only he perfected it, taking a dismal Owls program to the AAC’s mountaintop and making them kings of the AAC before bolting for Baylor, because who doesn’t like a good ol’ fixer-upper? (The Bears are currently 0-4, with losses to Liberty, UT-San Antonio, and Duke.) In his wake, he left a team that, so far, doesn’t seem quite sure about its ceiling in a post-Rhule world.
Through the opening four weeks, the Owls sit at 2-2, having logged a couple of wins against Villanova and UMass—they should have been booted from the AAC if they had lost those games—and a couple blowout losses to Notre Dame and South Florida. Keep in mind, the Irish, though much-improved so far, sucked ass last year; the Bulls finished 11-2 last season—the Owls were one of the two losses, downing them 46-30 last October on the way to an outright AAC title. This past weekend’s contest, however, looked like a game between two teams playing in a completely different division.
The Bulls consistently rearranged Temple’s defensive line in whichever fashion best suited running backs Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson; given the recent play of linemen Jacob Martin and redshirt freshman Quincy Roche, this was both unexpected and embarrassing, and left the Owls’ second and third lines to register a season’s worth of whiffs. (A week after going for eight tackles, four for a loss, Roche notched a single tackle.) In all, Temple allowed 312 rushing yards and four scores by the time the clock mercifully read triple zeroes. The worst part is that the defense was almost absolutely the best thing Temple had going for it.
With six turnovers and seven first downs, the offense doomed the defense from the jump. I don’t say this lightly—the Owls offense truly fielded one of the very worst performance I’ve ever had to watch for this job. They ran for minus-four yards, completed 30 percent of their passes for 89 yards and four picks, and had to rely on the defense for the team’s lone score. The game was hideous, and morally, I cannot ask you to even glimpse the highlight reel.
Everyone around Temple football understood this year’s offense was going to need some time to get its sea legs, given a newcomer assumed the starting quarterback role. With Phillip Walker a graduated man, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi was left in charge of slinging the ball around in offensive coordinator’s Dave Patenaude fast-paced system. (Patenaude came over from Coastal Carolina, where he spent five seasons crafting Division I offenses at what was then a FCS program.) Through the opening three games, Marchi, who entered the season with just six college throws to his name, was decent at best; in the fourth game he was outright bad.
Against the Bulls, Marchi was his normal gun-slinging self—the guy throws a really tight ball, but his vision and awareness are sometimes nonexistent. By the nine-minute mark of the second quarter, Marchi already had two picks to his name, both very much his fault. To start the second half, Temple opted to switch things up and insert Frank Nutile; it went poorly, with his drive ending in a pick for South Florida’s Devin Abraham (more like Nrank Futile, amirite). Abraham was the same guy who snuffed out Temple’s doomed attempt at a fake field goal in the first quarter.
When the Owls turned back to Marchi on their next drive, he shocked everyone in South Florida’s stadium by... tossing another pick. Dave Patenaude was sad.
The sole score Temple could manage came off a stupendous play from end Jacob Martin, in which he strip-sacked the South Florida quarterback, scooped the ball off the bounce, and took it to the house. While the defense has crumbled when faced with actual offensive threats so far this season, Martin’s logged three sacks and two recovered fumbles to pair with three tackles for loss. He and Roche, who emerged a star after the UMass win, actually constitute something close to the pass rush folks in Philly have briefly grown accustomed to seeing.
Moving forward, I’m not quite sure how Temple remedies all the glaring issued Charlie Strong and Co. repeatedly exposed. The running game was never one that I’d call all that impressive, but the Owls did have two 900-plus yard rushers a season ago; while they lost Jahad Thomas, they got to hang onto Ryquell Armstead. He’s got 180 yards through four games, which would be fine if this were still a two-back system. And it’s not really his fault—the offensive line, like their defensive counterparts, were merely practice dummies for the Bulls, allowing five sacks and doing Armstead and the other backs not a single favor. Likewise, even with a solid receiving corps—breakout sophomore Isaiah Wright joins Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings—they don’t do a lick of good if the Owls can’t find a guy to get them the ball. Marchi is clearly not prepared to face a real defense, and neither of the backups that saw time provided even the tiniest sliver of hope—freshman Todd Centeio was on the field for two plays in the second quarter; he was sacked both times.
I get it. South Florida is insanely good and judging a team based off how they play against one of the nation’s best is unfair, but 1) Temple won the damn conference last year and 2) a number of other AAC teams have offenses or defenses that are just as potent as what the Bulls have. USF might be the AAC’s toughest opponent and thus handed the Owls a worse beatdown than others, but if Temple tries to play its conference schedule like this, expect more beatdowns to come.
Temple’s other Guy To Know doesn’t have his own highlight film just yet—defensive tackle Quincy Roche is a redshirt freshman, but he seems on a solid track to earn video with shitty visual quality and a mediocre 2006 Fat Joe song in the background by season’s end—so instead, we’ll watch Ryquell Armstead run through, past, and around some of the AAC’s best. Armstead’s since changed his jersey number from 25 to 7, but he runs the same way this season as he did last year: devastatingly hard.
When he hits the edge, he’s gone; when he takes it up the middle, he’s almost guaranteed to leave a linebacker on his back. If the Temple line could help him out a little more, he’d be well past 300 yards by this point in the season, but alas, this is a team sport. Still, Armstead’s managed to bust out several impressive runs, notably against UMass, and will hopefully see more games like that moving forward. I don’t think you’ll see this guy on Sunday (I’d be glad to be proved wrong), but for now, he’s the best option the Owls have on offense, lest they try and (gulp) air it out again.
Hell no, Temple can’t make the playoff. If you’d have asked me in the spring, I would’ve given you the same answer, but I would have said it nicely. Now, having seen what they can do through the opening four games (again, a limited look, I know), I’m not convinced they won’t go from AAC champions to AAC bottom-feeders. They’re lucky they play in the same division as East Carolina and UConn, but the Owls, as they’re playing right now, need their quarterback, offensive line, and entire defense to get their shit together, otherwise, they’ll be locked in a race to not finish last with a pair of teams they allowed 10 points combined to a year ago.
Geoff Collins is a former Western Carolina linebacker who worked his way up the ranks via the grad assistant route—he made stops at Albright, Georgia Tech, Alabama, Central Florida, FIU, Mississippi State, Florida, and, finally, locked down the Temple gig. So far, he’s not off to the best of starts, but if anyone’s laid the blueprint for a four-year plan, it’s his predecessor. Too-early job security projections aside, Collins doesn’t have any strikes against him, as far as I know. If you know farther, email me.
Sept. 2: @ Notre Dame (L 49-16)
Sept. 9: Villanova (W 16-13)
Sept. 15: UMass (W 29-21)
Sept. 21: @ USF (L 43-7)
Sept. 30: Houston
Oct. 7: @ ECU
Oct. 14: UConn
Oct. 21: @ Army
Nov. 3: Navy
Nov. 10: @ Cincinnati
Nov. 18: UCF
Nov. 25: @ Tulsa