"We'll definitely win the MAC this year."
You won't hear that from Temple coach Al Golden, but that was the prediction from second-year Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Back in 2008 Knighton was the defensive anchor of a five-win Owls squad.
That's what they used to call progress at Temple. Those five wins Knighton was a part of marked the program's highest win total since 1990. But while Knighton developed from a third-round pick into a steady contributor in the NFL, Temple spent 2009 coming within 10 points of doubling that win total. The team rattled off nine straight wins to the co-championship of the Mid-American Conference East title and earned a berth in the EagleBank Bowl where it eventually lost to UCLA.
Like Knighton, voters have officially predicted the Owls to be the favorites not just to win the MAC East but to become conference champions. And for good reasons.
The team has 16 starters back, five of whom are returning all-MAC selections, and it survived an offseason of coaching roulette with Golden still calling the shots in Philly. Since 2007 he's been tied to various coaching vacancies from Syracuse to Cincinnati to Notre Dame.
Golden, a Joe Paterno and George Welsh disciple, built the program with a defense-first attitude and the team finished 39th out of 120 D-I programs in 2009 in terms of points allowed.
"We felt that was the quickest way for us to turn the program around -- and most particularly to compete in this conference -- was on the defensive side."
But now it's the offense's turn to carry some of the water.
"Hopefully this is the first year our offense catches up to our defense," Golden continues. "That would be great if that happens because then we'd have all three phases come together. We haven't had that yet."
While sophomore running back Bernard Pierce earned 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year honors and has a Heisman campaign behind him this season, offensive success has to come from under center. And that means Chester Stewart. A redshirt junior, Stewart had a 112.4 quarterback rating, but he completed only 40 percent of his passes during his run as starter the last four games of the regular season.
|Al Golden will have 16 starters back, including five all-MAC selections. (Getty Images)|
"Chester's made the biggest growth in terms of leadership and developing a team mentality," Golden said.
Stewart, who has a strong arm and allows the team to run some option, should be in a position to succeed with three all-MAC offensive lineman in front of him and defenses keying on stopping Pierce.
As a freshman Pierce rumbled for 1,361 yards and a school record 16 touchdowns. That got him a spot on the preseason All-American team and made him the star of five billboards along Pennsylvania highways. There's a website -- www.pierce4heisman.com -- and the typical poking and prodding of his teammates who reportedly have labeled the running back "Hollywood."
And according to Golden the sky is still the limit so long as development continues.
"He's as gifted as a running back comes," Golden said, "but he has to learn how to develop the mental and physical toughness. He has to develop that toughness play-in and play-out. There are no running backs who are healthy all season. He has to learn that and it will come with maturity.
"He was pressed into action early last year so he didn't have an offseason. He grew into his position but clearly physically he wasn't ready for the toll it takes on one's body. If he wants to play at the next level he has to develop that. And he was the benefactor of a solid offensive line."
It's that sort of realism, that sort of attitude that drives the program. Golden makes everything a matter of winning. Film class? Win it. Weight training? Win it. Being a good student-athlete? Win it.
"The first day he got there [in 2006]," Knighton said, "it was 'win at everything.' Win at the classroom, win at drills, win in the film room. And the thing is, it's working."
It's a recipe Golden says he didn't pick up playing for Paterno or during his stint as an NFL tight end. Its roots trace back to one of sports' greatest architects.
"What's the goal this year? It's about improving every day as a program. The hardest thing to do is focus on the process of executing. I believe wholeheartedly if you focus on the process and live by core values that the product will take care of itself. It's something I really studied about in coach John Wooden."
|MAC Quick Hits|
|Best offense: Temple|
|Best defense: Kent State|
|Sleeper team: Kent State|
|Coach of the year: Al Golden, Temple|
|Offensive player: Bernard Pierce, Temple|
|Defensive player: Adrian Robinson, Temple|
|Game of the Year: Temple at Northern Illinois, Oct. 9|
|MAC Championship: Temple over Northern Illinois|
It was the only way to tackle the mess that was Temple football for the past 20-plus years.
"We're relevant now, but we were probably the definition of irrelevant back in 2006. We were hanging around the 116-119 range of the rankings."
With that relevancy will come more speculation. Is Golden destined to take over at Penn State? What if Virginia comes calling? He watched Butch Jones leave Central Michigan and Turner Gill head to Kansas. He knows how tough it still is to recruit (defensive back Jaiquawn Jarrett may be a top-100 draft pick now, but he went without a D-I offer until Temple came knocking) and saw how easy it was for a rising program to take a step back like Buffalo did last season.
But for all the talk of Golden having one foot out the door, he brings this counter.
"We haven't achieved the goals we want to here. I'm constantly hearing 'I'm going to go to this place or that place.' Since I've been here we've had three deans of students so there's been more administration changes than on our own staff.
"And what's wrong with today? Everybody's talking about tomorrow. They don't enjoy the now, things like senior prom, establishing ties with their community. We're just trying to enjoy today. Trying to impact some kids lives and enjoy the today."
And enjoying today is what Knighton, unlike few Temple alums before him, now gets to do.
"Guys on the team are always getting on me because I went to Temple. I pull out the stats sheets and show them how many wins we had. We'll again have one of the best offensive lines, best defenses, best running backs. I'm proud to be an Owl."
Offensive player of the year
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple: Had an amazing season, rushing for 1,361 yards and 16 touchdowns with just nine starts last season. Had six 100-yard rushing performances and became the first freshman in school history to rush for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games. He had 267 yards rushing on 29 carries in the win over Navy and 212 yards against Toledo on 40 carries.
Defensive player of the year
Adrian Robinson, DE, Temple: Already being named to numerous preseason teams and watch lists (Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award) after a tremendous 2009 season. Looking to follow up his MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors after recording a conference-leading 13 sacks last year. He also had 46 tackles, a team-best 14 for loss, and five forced fumbles.
Predicted order of finish
1. Temple : After going 9-4 last season and returning tons of players, the conference is Temple's to lose. Along with the return of Bernard Pierce, three starters are back on the offensive line. The passing game will need to get a little better with the return of WRs Joe Jones and James Nixon, but teams had trouble stopping Pierce last year even with no passing attack. The defense should be strong again with the return of DE Adrian Robinson, as well as LB Elijah Joseph and safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Must-see game: Oct. 9 at Northern Illinois. The two best teams in the conference do battle in what should be a MAC Championship preview.
2. Ohio: Frank Solich has built a nice program at Ohio, where the Bobcats have made a bowl in two of the last four seasons. The Bobcats should be ready for another postseason with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. On offense, wide receiver and punt returner LaVon Brazill is back for his senior season. Boo Jackson is back at quarterback after missing most of 2009 with an injury. In 2008, Jackson threw for 2,355 yards with 19 TDs. The defense will be strong again with all four starters back on the defensive line, including DT Ernie Hodge. Linebacker Noah Keller, who was sixth in the nation in tackles last year, is back for his senior season. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Ohio State. You want upset? How huge would this one be?
3. Kent State: With so many stars on defense, the Golden Flashes are the sleeper of the conference ... if it can get the offense in gear. Four guys are on CBSSports.com's preseason All-MAC team, including safety Brian Lainhart, who leads all active players with 15 interceptions. DE Monte Simmons, LB Cobrani Mixon and CB Josh Pleasant also made the team, giving the Golden Flashes an excellent defense. But the big problem is on offense, where Kent State scored just 19.3 points per game last year (106th in the nation). Eugene Jarvis is back for his sixth season after he was injured last year. Sophomore quarterback Spencer Keith finally takes over as the full time starter after throwing 14 TDs last season. Must-see game: Nov. 6 vs. Temple. This game could decide who is the frontrunner in the East.
4. Buffalo: Jeff Quinn takes over as head coach and still has plenty to work with at Buffalo. The strength should be on defense, where six starters are back, including three players in the secondary. Cornerback Domonic Cook is one of the best in the conference, as well as safety Davonte Shannon. There is a little more work to do on offense, where Buffalo will see a new quarterback, running back and receiving core. Jerry Davis and Alex Dennison are battling for the starting QB job. Must-see game: Sept. 25 at Connecticut. Buffalo's last out-of-conference game is a big one as it takes on one of the better Big East squads.
5. Akron: Things should improve at Akron, where the Zips were 3-9 last season. The quarterback situation isn't set yet as sophomore Patrick Nicely is battling with junior Matt Rodgers for the starting job. Whoever wins the job will have senior Jeremy LaFrance back at wide receiver. The running game was awful last year (118.4 yards per game), so the Zips expect Alex Allen to help in that area. On defense, seven starters are back, including linebacker Brian Wagner, who was seventh in the nation last year with 11 stops per game. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Kentucky. Chances are slim, but it would be a nice victory to go on the road and beat an SEC team.
6. Bowling Green: It's going to be very tough for the Falcons to duplicate what they did last year with the loss of QB Tyler Sheehan and WR Freddie Barnes. The quarterback situation is up for grabs, but it looks like the job will go to sophomore Matt Schilz. He'll have his hands full with just four starters back on offense, including wide receiver Ray Hutson. The defense has only four starters back as well, but the strength will be up front with DE Angelo Magnone and DT Kevin Alvarado both back. The secondary should be pretty good with Adrien Spencer leading the way. Must-see game: Oct. 23 vs. Kent State. The winner of this game could sneak into the No. 3 spot in the East.
7. Miami (Ohio): After a 1-11 season and losing the first two games 90-0, things can't get any worse for 2010. The offense has 10 starters back, including QB Zac Dysert and WR Armand Robinson, so expect the RedHawks to improve on its conference-worst 15.6 ppg. The defense is young, so things might be rough for awhile, especially since Miami plays at Florida and at Missouri early in the year, but things should get better toward the end. LB Jerrell Wedge anchors the defense. Keep an eye on Iowa transfer Jason Semmes, who could see plenty of action at DE. Must-see game: Sept. 11 vs. Eastern Michigan. After the Florida game, Miami should get a win the following week.
1. Northern Illinois: One of the conference's best defenses returns nine starters, including sophomore DE Sean Progar. Look for the secondary to be one of the MAC's best with all four starters back, including safety Tracy Wilson, who led the team with 93 tackles, including 46 solo. On offense, Chad Spann returns after rushing for 1,038 yards and 19 touchdowns. Since he doesn't have to share carries with Me'co Brown, look for the conference's leading rushing attack to lean heavily on Spann. Chandler Harnish is back at quarterback after throwing 11 TDs. Must-see game: Oct. 9 vs. Temple. The two best teams in the conference do battle in what should be a MAC Championship preview.
|Ball State's MiQuale Lewis looks to return to his 2008 form, where he rushed for 1,736 yards. (Getty Images)|
3. Toledo: The Rockets had one of the MAC's best offenses last year, but will rein in a new quarterback and running back this season. Sophomore Austin Dantin looks to be the starter, but don't count out Terrance Owens. The good thing for either guy is they will have the conference's best WR to throw to in Eric Page. As a freshman, Page had 1,159 yards receiving to go along with 82 catches. On defense, the Rockets have five starters back, including LB Archie Donald. Jermaine Robinson is back and will anchor the secondary. Must-see game: Oct. 23 vs. Ball State. A big game in the race for one of those three MAC bowl bids.
4. Ball State: Despite going just 2-10 last year, Ball State has the potential to make a huge turnaround this season. Nine starters are back on offense, including running back MiQuale Lewis. The senior struggled a bit last year, rushing for just 871 yards and five touchdowns. If he can get back to what he did in 2008 -- 1,736 yards and 22 TDs -- Ball State could make some waves in the West. All five starters are back on the offensive line, which should help. On defense, DE Robert Eddins returns after recording seven sacks last season. Safety Sean Baker anchors the secondary. Must-see game: Oct. 2 at Central Michigan. We'll find out pretty quick if Ball State can compete or not.
5. Western Michigan: The toughest team to project. The Broncos had a disappointing season last year, so the question is which way will they go this season. Gone are QB Tim Hiller and RB Brandon West, but WRs Robert Arnheim and Chleb Ravenell are back. On defense, the team must get better after ranking near the bottom of the conference in scoring and total yards allowed. LB Deauntay Legrier is back for his sophomore season, along with safety Jamail Berry. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer DL John Rice, who should come in and start right away. Must-see game: Nov. 5 at Central Michigan. Always a great battle between the two Michigan schools.
6. Eastern Michigan: Ron English had a rough first season, but if one thing should improve quickly, it's the defense. English looks to get one of the nation's worst defenses in shape and will have DE Javon Reese back for his junior season. Junior college transfer Jasper Grimes comes in and should make an immediate impact at DT. On offense, running back Dwayne Priest returns for his senior season after rushing for 633 yards. TE Ben Thayer is back after catching 29 passes last season. Must-see game: Sept. 11 at Miami (Ohio). The winner can lay claim to not being the conference's worst team.
J. Darin Darst contributed to this preview with the predicted order of finish.