Five teams received votes to win their division in the American Athletic Conference’s preseason picks by the media. Despite not being one of them, Temple could become the first in league history to claim a division crown.
The 21st-ranked Owls can seal their spot in the inaugural AAC championship game by beating one of the two teams still with a shot to catch them in the East Division as they visit South Florida on Saturday night.
Temple (8-1, 5-0) has been a big surprise after going 8-16 in coach Matt Rhule’s first two seasons. The Owls opened with an upset of Penn State before winning at Cincinnati, which received 29 of the 30 first-place votes in the East (UCF got the other). Memphis, Houston and Navy received votes in the West and are all currently ranked.
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As those three fight it out for the other AAC title game berth in the conference’s first year of division play, Temple can clinch its spot as early as Saturday because it leads South Florida by two games and Connecticut by 2 1/2.
Rhule didn’t bother avoiding the topic of what’s at stake when it came to addressing his players.
"I always talk about things like that just because I know they’re hearing it," he said. "They know, ‘Hey, guess what, you win, you clinch.’ I think we do. I’m not that good in math, but I think that’s what it is, right?
" … Just concentrating on us, concentrating on the game, and all the other things will happen."
His team won’t overlook the Bulls (5-4, 3-2). Three of their losses were to teams currently ranked – Florida State, Memphis and Navy – and the only one at home was 24-17 to the Tigers on Oct. 2.
USF has won its other three games at Raymond James Stadium by a combined 134-41 score.
"I know one thing about Ray Jay, when it’s rocking it’s hard for any opponent to come in here and play," coach Willie Taggart told the Bulls’ official website. "I’ve been on the other side of that coming in here and playing when that place is rocking. That’s how we need it Saturday night."
The Owls are seeking the first 6-0 road record in school history. However, they’re 0-10 in the Sunshine State since winning at Florida in 1938 in legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner’s final game.
Temple’s only defeat was a 24-20 heartbreaker to then-No. 9 Notre Dame on Halloween. The Owls responded last week with a 60-40 victory at SMU, recording their highest point total since 2012.
P.J. Walker completed a dreadful 13 of 30 passes against the Irish but came back with an 18-of-25 effort versus the Mustangs, throwing for 268 yards and four touchdowns. The junior is two TD passes shy of Henry Burris’ school record of 49, and he’s 230 passing yards away from joining Burris as the only Temple quarterbacks with three straight 2,000-yard seasons.
Walker has thrown four interceptions in 244 attempts and been sacked just 12 times.
"The biggest thing with P.J. is he’s protected the football which has allowed us to win," Rhule said. "He’s a winner so he doesn’t worry about stats."
Walker is backed by Jahad Thomas, who leads the conference with 970 rushing yards and has 14 TDs.
Thomas is the only AAC player with more rushing yards per game than USF’s Marlon Mack (104.4). The sophomore is 165 shy of a second straight 1,000-yard season after rushing for 117 in last week’s 22-17 victory at East Carolina.
That win kept the Bulls in the AAC chase and within one victory of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
"This is what we all want, to be playing for something this time of year," Taggart said.
His team, though, must overcome the conference’s top-ranked defense. The Owls allow 334.8 yards per game.
These programs’ only meeting came in 2012, when South Florida lost 37-28 at Temple.