PHILADELPHIA – Second-year Temple coach Matt Rhule has clear expectations for this season.
"We're expecting ourselves to be bowl eligible," Rhule said. "We don't put any limit on what we can do and don't put any excuses on what we can't do. We're just going to go compete."
Rhule endured a 2-10 mark in his first season and the Owls' initial one in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. But the coach is optimistic after the Owls finished well, winning 41-21 at Memphis in the season's finale after losing the three previous games by a combined 13 points.
The Owls, who were picked to finish eighth in the 11-team AAC, open their season Aug. 28 at Vanderbilt.
"Now we know who we are, what we're doing and the players are comfortable in the system," Rhule said. "Last year there were times you feel like you're the only person who knows what you want. You're trying to get all of these people on the same page. In year two, all of the people are on the same page. It goes from being an introductory phase to being something where we all work together."
If they are to reach their fifth bowl in school history, the Owls will need to continue the pace they began under the offensive-minded Rhule after averaging 24.9 points and accumulating 4,788 total yards in 2013. But Temple needs to improve the other side of the ball after ranking last in the conference in total defense last season while allowing opponents to score 29.8 points per contest.
Five things to know about Temple:
TACKLING MACHINE: With 99 solo tackles, linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the nation in 2013. He has 237 tackles in the last two seasons.
Rhule had high praise for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior.
"He's a leader, he's tough, he's physical, he represents what we want to represent," Rhule said. "Players around him respond to him. He has the physical tools, the mental tools and the intangibles - the instincts, the feel for the game - that are hard to find. I don't think there's any secret why he led the nation in tackles last year and right now he's much better than he was last year."
UNDER CENTER: Sophomore P.J. Walker will run the Temple offense after shining as a true freshman last season when he passed for 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns in seven starts. Walker also ran for 488 yards and 3 TDs.
"They know they have a guy who can win, a guy who is dynamic," Rhule said. "He's someone they believe in because he's a good person, a winner and great teammate. He's only going to get better and better and better."
Rhule would like to see the 6-1, 200-pound Walker improve his decision making and cut down on mistakes after throwing eight picks last season.
THE CENTER: Snapping the ball to Walker will be arguably one of the Owls' best players in junior center Kyle Friend.
Temple will need Friend to be good, too, because he's the only offensive lineman returning in a unit that will be implementing four new starters.
"He's big, strong, fast and extremely intelligent," Rhule said. "He keeps everyone on the same page."
KICKING GAME: Temple made just three field goals last season, on nine attempts, and doesn't have a player returning that made one.
Sophomore Jim Cooper went 0-for-3 last season but has shown promise in the preseason in a three-man battle with freshman Austin Jones and junior Tyler Mayes. Rhule said the competition for the starting position will continue until the season opener.
"There's probably not an area more vital," he said. "We have to be able to score points in the red zone and feel really certain about what we're doing."
IMPROVING THE D: Rhule is banking on junior college transfers Alex Wells and Khiry Lucas to help solidify the Owls' secondary that gave up 3,583 yards through the air last season.
The coach also has emphasized getting pressure on the quarterback and feels Matt Ioannidis, who led the team with three sacks last year, along with Sharif Finch and Praise Martin-Oguike, will have the greatest impact on improving the defensive line.