Don’t look now, but the college football season officially gets underway tonight with a solid slate of games, including one that features the city’s only Football Bowl Subdivision program in a somewhat high-profile matchup.
Head coach Matt Rhule’s Temple team has its spot reserved at the kickoff table tonight with a matchup against the Southeastern Conference’s Vanderbilt at 9:15 p.m. in Nashville. The contest is the second game of a doubleheader on the SEC Network.
It’s the first stop on the Owls’ quest rebound from an ugly 2-10 record last season.
Before we go any further, I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I lead a double life.
I don’t just write things about the Flyers and hockey that infuriate you on this site. I’m also a beat reporter who covers Temple sports for OwlScoop.com and Rivals.com and have been for the last few seasons.
What I’m getting at is that I know a thing or two about the Owls and there are more than enough reasons to keep your eyes on them throughout this season.
1. Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker’s encore
Injuries and overall inconsistent play at the position last season thrust the then-true freshman Walker, whom coaches originally planned to redshirt, under center and into the starting spotlight just six games into his collegiate career.
Walker, who some compare stature-wise to Russell Wilson due to his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame, responded by finishing with a school freshman record 20 touchdown passes and tied for fourth in school history with 2,084 passing yards. Walker is also quite adept with his legs as he ran for 332 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.
Those accolades earned him a trip over the summer to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, where he was invited to be an instructor. That was quite an honor for a young signal caller who didn’t start his team’s first five games last season.
Despite the loss of Robby Anderson, last year’s leading receiver, due to undisclosed issues, Walker will have arguably a deeper group of receivers and backs at his disposal this season. It will be exciting to see what he can do for an encore, especially with those weapons around him.
2. The Owls’ kicking woes will make you feel a helluva lot better about the Eagles’ kicking woes
I’ll put it to you this way: Rhule wishes he had a kicker like Alex Henery.
Think about that.
The Owls have three place kickers on the roster, but each was so inconsistent during camp that Rhule has yet to commit to full-time starter just hours before his team’s first game.
Redshirt junior Tyler Mayes will likely get the first crack against Vanderbilt, but Rhule has publicly stated that rotating the kickers is a real possibility.
All this after a 2013 season when the Owls made just three field goals all year!
To make matters worse, the Owls’ punters have also been inconsistent during camp and there’s no full-time starter there, either.
Mayes will also likely start at punter but again, rotating punters isn’t out of the question.
At least the Eagles have Donnie Long Ball.
3. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is a tackling machine
Matakevich burst onto the scene in 2012 and recorded 101 tackles – the first time in school history that plateau was reached by a freshman.
In 2013, he recorded 137 total tackles, led the entire NCAA with 8.8 solo tackles per game and was second in the country with 11.4 total tackles per game. Those efforts earned him first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors and a Sports Illustrated All-American honorable mention.
The junior enters 2014 as a preseason fourth-team All-American and a member of multiple award watchlists.
Long story short: Matakevich see guy with ball, Matakevich hit guy with ball.
In all seriousness, if you’re a fan of relentless linebackers and smash-mouth defense, Matakevich is the guy for you. Make sure you watch him.
4. They still have the live owl mascot they introduced last season
Stella the Owl is back for her second season of patrolling the Owls’ sideline and she’s as terrifying as ever.
I’ve been up close to her and trust me when I tell you that Stella, whose official school profile page says she enjoys a nutritious diet of rodents, rabbits and snakes (and probably human flesh, if she ever gets the chance), is absolutely not to be messed with.
Let’s just say that owl talons are pretty intimidating when you’re a few feet away from said owl and it’s staring a hole through you.
5. Temple’s 2014 recruiting class was one of the best in the program’s history
According to Rivals.com, Temple had the 59th best recruiting class in the country in 2014.
You may be thinking, “Wow, 59th. Who cares?”
For a program that’s trying to climb its way up the ladder, it was a huge recruiting splash that ranked ahead of power conference programs such as Illinois, Purdue, Washington State, Northwestern, Utah and Colorado. The class was also ahead of traditional power Boise State and tied with Iowa of the Big Ten and Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And many members of the class have the chance to make an impact for the Owls.
Junior college transfer Alex Wells will start tonight at safety. Corners Sean Chandler and Anthony Davis are expected to see plenty of time tonight, as well. Wide receiver Matthew Eaton impressed during camp and likely earned some playing time. Ditto for defensive end Jacob Martin. Four-star left guard Aaron Ruff, the highest rated recruit of the class, will likely be one of the first subs on an already thin offensive line.
Rhule and his staff already have another really solid recruiting class lined up for 2015, so this wasn’t a one-time thing. They can close a deal.
6. There will be more than enough seats available at Lincoln Financial Field for you to catch a game live and in-person this season
Think you’ll be bored on a couple Saturday afternoons or Friday nights in the coming months and will want to get out of the house?
Well, you’ll basically be able to have your pick of seats at Temple games. And for cheap, too.
In 2013, Temple averaged 22,473 fans at the Linc, which holds over 68,000 people.
Not so good.
And that was when top teams such as Teddy Bridgewater-led Louisville and Blake Bortles-led Central Florida made visits.
There are plenty of Temple fans out there, but you really wouldn’t know it by the way games have been attended over the past few seasons. It’s one of the things that will have to change as the program takes steps toward the next level.
Looking your way, student body. It's an easy subway ride.
7. The Owls have plenty of local talent
As you might expect, the Owls have a bit of a local flavor.
They have 19 players from the local Pennsylvania area (eight from Philadelphia), nine from the local South Jersey area and one from the local Delaware area.
Those hometown guys playing for their hometown college are easy to root for.
8. Local product and Florida transfer tight end Colin Thompson could be a beast if healthy
Thompson turned down offers from Alabama, South Carolina, Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Michigan State, among others, to go to Florida after he graduated from Archbishop Wood as a four-star recruit in 2012.
But things never got off on the right foot, literally, for Thompson at Florida as a foot injury limited his playing time.
He recently decided to transfer and Rhule and his staff swept in and convinced the 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end to come to Temple.
There’s a reason why he was four-star recruit and so many powerful programs wanted him. He could be a monster for the Owls, the caveat being if he can get healthy and stay healthy.
He’s still dealing with that foot injury (it’s not totally dissimilar to the one Sixers draft pick Joel Embiid has) he suffered at Florida and isn’t expected to see game action until October at the earliest. Under Armour is working on a special cleat for Thompson so he can get back on the field as quickly as possible without limitations.
Thompson is expected to have three years of eligibility at Temple after the NCAA ruled he can play immediately. Walker-to-Thompson could be something you hear a lot over the next few seasons.
9. If last season is any indication, some kooky things will happen
College football is known for being unpredictable. The Owls were all that and more last season.
They started by playing better than the final score indicated at Notre Dame but then things fell off the wagon.
There were the embarrassing losses to Football Championship Subdivision Fordham and lowly Idaho. Then there was a debacle at SMU when Temple gave up 59 points and 538 passing yards. After that came a loss at Rutgers on the last play of the game, the inexplicable blown game against No. 15 UCF that featured the catch of the year and finally a loss to previously winless Connecticut when Temple gave up 28 unanswered points.
If nothing else, the Owls usually keep it interesting, whether it’s in a good, bad or ugly way.
10. Things can’t possibly go any worse than last year, right?
It’s often said that things have to get worse before they get better.
Well, last season was rock bottom for the Owls.
With a bit of an easier schedule, a watered-down American Athletic Conference, a year with a new coach and new systems under the players’ belts and an infusion of young talent, there just can’t be any way things get worse for Temple.
They still may be a year away from bowl contention, but the pieces are in place, and slowly but surely, steps are being taken in the right direction.