Temple, Memphis meet as unlikely AAC powers

However unlikely it might have seemed prior to the season, the Temple and Memphis game on Nov. 7 is a massive one. The winner will leave Lincoln Financial Field with bowl eligibility secured, as well as a strong foothold in the American Athletic Conference title race.

During the preseason months, it would have been easy for fans and media to overlook or even disregard a scheduled Nov. 7 game between Temple and Memphis. You certainly wouldn’t have faulted anyone for doing so at the time considering that the two programs won a combined five games last season.

But 2014 has brought about a resurgence for both Temple (5-3, 3-2 AAC) and Memphis (5-3, 3-1). This game has taken on new meaning, and promises to have repercussions for the American Athletic Conference title race as well as both program’s respective bowl hopes.

Once stuck in the AAC basement, Temple and Memphis have emerged as power brokers for at least the remainder of this season. With five wins apiece, both programs appear to be on track for a bowl appearance and both are also hoping to do better than that. Memphis is part of a five-way tie for first place in the conference by virtue of its 3-1 record. On paper, Temple is alone in 6th place and has two losses that will be hard to overcome in the standings — to Houston and UCF, both tied for first place. Still, the Owls are just a game back of the first-place pack and a win against Memphis would further Temple’s title challenge.

Few would have pegged this game as consequential to the conference landscape back in August, and now that it means something to both squads, the head coaches involved appear to be acutely in-tune with the significance of this game. Memphis head coach Justin Fuente is well aware of what Temple head coach Matt Rhule is building on North Broad Street, just as Rhule respects what Memphis has already accomplished in the Liberty Bowl stadium so far in 2014.

"They're playing with much more confidence. I don't want to put words in Coach Rhule's mouth, but I think they're making some of the same strides that we're making from a team perspective in terms of accountability, belief in each other, toughness and work ethic," Fuente said of Temple's improvement this season. "They're making those strides that you hear me talk about a lot. They've improved upon last year. When we played them, I thought they played really well. I would expect the same this week."

Rhule only needed to note all manner of statistics and rankings to evidence how impressed he is with the job Fuente is doing at Memphis.

“(Memphis is) first in the conference in scoring offense. First in the conference in rushing offense. Third in the conference in scoring defense,” Rhule said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “They beat you up on both sides of the ball… They’re (tied) in first place for a reason.

“I think (Temple players) all thought East Carolina was probably the number-one scoring offense, right?. I’ve got new for them — they’re not. Memphis is… The (Memphis) tape quickly snaps you back into reality."

Temple and Memphis might have seemed unlikely candidates to meet in early November with so much at stake, but that scenario is in play today. In-keeping with the notion that neither team is satisfied yet, both will be desperate for a win in order to keep their respective postseason pushes as strong as possible.

Last time out: Last Week In-Depth

Temple, 20-10 win versus No. 21 East Carolina (6-2, 3-1 AAC) Arguably the biggest win for any team in AAC play this season, Temple knocked off a Pirates squad that was in line for the conference title and a New Year’s Day bowl. Temple’s defense bent but didn’t break in the win as it allowed more than 400 yards of offense but also recovered five ECU turnovers. Weather acted as an equalizer in the game, and Temple adjusted while the usually potent Pirates offense simply looked lost when the time came to convert long drives into legitimate scoring threats.

Memphis, 40-20 win versus Tulsa (1-7, 1-3 AAC)

Just as you’d expect from this rising AAC power, Memphis eventually found a way to punish lowly Tulsa despite trailing, 7-0, after one quarter. Brandon Hayes helped the Tigers clinch their homecoming victory with a career outing that included 199 rushing yards and three scores. For the year, Hayes has 531 rushing yards and five rushing scores. Memphis put up 426 total yards in the game but also fumbled three times and turned it over once. Temple knows how to put fumbles to good use, as we saw last weekend, so Memphis will need to do a much better job of protecting the ball.

Bowl berth at stake for both teams

One of few certainties going into Friday’s game is that the winner will leave Lincoln Financial Field with its bowl eligibility secured. A return to postseason play would be a welcome change of pace for both programs.

Memphis was a postseason regular earlier this century, participating in five bowl games in a six-year span from 2003-2008. The Tigers haven’t come close to sniffing a bowl berth up until now after winning only won 12 games from 2009 to 2013.

By comparison, Temple’s bowl drought isn’t nearly as long — the Owls won their 2011 appearance in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Temple regressed since that win during the coaching transition in which Rhule took over the program, and it fell just as far out of postseason relevance as Memphis did. So, Rhule said he isn’t really looking at a sixth win as a moment for the Owls to celebrate, though, because he doesn’t want his team to let up.

“I think about (bowl eligibility) just because I’d like to get to six wins. That's the next win,” Rhule explained about deflecting attention away from the six-win threshold. “I’d like to beat Memphis on Friday night because I know how hard that’s going to be. And if we did that, would it be an accomplishment for these kids to be bowl eligible? Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s going to be an accomplishment for every team every year. It’s not the end game that we want to be, you know. I want, every week, to try to win each game. But I think if we can find a way to beat this talented team, then it would be a talented team. So, that’s out there but more importantly it’s just trying to get them ready to play (Memphis)."

A short week of preparation

From the high school ranks all the way to the pros, football is notorious for being especially hard on players' bodies after a "short week," or six or fewer days between games as opposed to the usual week. That's the situation both teams are facing on Friday, and for Temple starting quarterback P.J. Walker’s part, he said having one less day of preparation isn’t going to be an issue. After practice on Tuesday, Walker said that he expects his teammates to take care of their bodies and be just as fresh for Memphis as they would be for any other game.

“We’re in the ice tubs a lot,” Walker said. Every day after practice we’re in the ice tubs. We’re getting our bodies right and a lot of guys have matured… We try to rotate guys in and stay fresh, and we do a great job with it. Everybody (on the team) shouldn’t be as banged up as much as everybody thinks we should.”

Fan appreciation

Those that sat in the rain for Temple’s sparsely attended win against ECU did not go unnoticed by Rhule and the Temple players. He made special mention of those fans that braved the cold rain and occasional wind to see Temple’s historic win against the Pirates.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the fans that were at the game,” Rhule said. "That was a cold day. It was a tough day to be out there and we had just a lot of students and Temple people that came out to support us and sat through that weather and we really appreciate it.”

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