Temple starts its Big East football season this year with its best starting record since 1987. The 3-1 Owls begin their conference campaign against West Virginia tonight at Franklin Field. The Owls, who went 2-5

Temple starts its Big East football season this year with its best starting record since 1987. The 3-1 Owls begin their conference campaign against West Virginia tonight at Franklin Field.

The Owls, who went 2-5 in the Big East last year, have improved across the board.

Sophomore rusher Tanardo Sharps leads the conference in yards on the ground with 492. That’s close to 200 yards more than any other league running back. Pittsburgh’s Kevan Barlow is second with 303 yards.

Devin Scott is ranked third in passing in the conference, four steps ahead of Heisman hopeful Michael Vick of Virginia Tech. Scott is averaging 212 yards a game, while Vick is averaging only 137.3. Scott’s total yardage through the air is the best in the conference with 848 yards.

“We still have a very young football team,” coach Bobby Wallace said. “We’ve got a long way to go. (That) doesn’t mean we can’t compete with people. We have a lot of work to do.”

The Owls gave up over 400 yards to Eastern Michigan but remain in the top 20 in total defense nationally. The only Big East team ahead of Temple is Pittsburgh, ranked ninth.

“I haven’t seen Temple this year, but everything I heard was how dramatically improved they are,” Miami Hurricane’s coach Butch Davis said. “They’re really talented on defense and Bobby (Wallace) is a good coach.

“There’s a reason Bear Bryant (323 career wins-NCAA record) and Joe Paterno (318 career wins) had all those great years,” Davis said. “They were patient when things weren’t going well, but they were able to recruit (and get better).”

Here is a rundown of the Owls’ competition in the Big East:

Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Franklin Field.

“I saw a good football team last year,” West Virginia (1-1 Big East, 2-1 overall) coach Don Nehlen said of Temple. “They came up a dropped pass short or a fumble short. They were a solid team last year.”

Tonight’s game will be a battle of defenses. West Virginia has a tough defense to run on. They have only allowed an average of 82 rushing yards per game, second in the Big East this season.

It will be tough for Sharps to run against the Mountaineers but not as difficult for Scott to pass against them. West Virginia is sixth in the conference in pass defense and have allowed an average of over 200 yards a game.

West Virginia is coming off a blowout loss to Miami last weekend. The Mountaineers opened up their Big East schedule with a win over Boston College, but dropped to 1-1 last week.

“Defensively they’re so much better this year,” Wallace said. “It will be a tough challenge for us.”

October 7, Lane Stadium/Worsham Field, Blacksburg, Va., 1 p.m.

Virginia Tech (1-0,3-0), along with Miami, have been the elite teams in the Big East. Last season the Hokies finished second in the nation after falling to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.

The Hokies return Michael Vick, on many people’s short list to win the Heisman Trophy. Vick possesses the skills to be a quarterback or a running back.

His multiple talents make him a tough opponent to stop. This season he has already rushed for 219 yards while passing for 412. Temple’s defense will have its work cut out for it when they take on the Hokies.

Last year Virginia Tech toppled Temple 62-7. Vick passed for 171 yards and two touchdowns. He also also had a 75-yard touchdown run in the game.

Temple’s defense has improved but it remains to be seen if it has improved enough to handle Vick.

It is unlikely that the Hokies will be caught looking past Temple, however. The last time these two teams played in Blacksburg, Temple pulled out a miracle 28-24 victory.

October 14, Rutgers Stadium, New Brunswick, NJ, 12 noon/6 p.m.

For a long time, Rutgers (0-2, 2-2) and Temple have been seen as a lower rung of competition in the Big East.

According to Devin Scott, ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger made a remark on television last week to the tune of Temple and Rutgers not being as good as the rest of the conference.

Scott responded by saying that they are a much better team than last year and Musburger’s remarks will only go to fire up the Owls.

Rutgers, on the other hand, still seems to be in their doldrums. They rank at or near the bottom in most defensive categories, and around the middle on offense.

The only category they lead is turnover margin. They have given up 12 fumbles and five interceptions in four games this season.

With Temple’s tough defense, a win against Rutgers is well within reach. All Temple has to do against Rutgers is avoid mistakes, and the Owls should be okay.

October 21, Veterans Stadium, noon.

Miami (1-0,2-1) would be a tough challenge for most teams in the nation this year, but especially Temple. Homecoming for the Owls and their first game of the season at Veterans Stadium will pit them against the Hurricanes.

Miami, ranked tenth in the nation this week, has a strong defense and offense. Similar to the Virginia Tech matchup, if the Owls want to win they have to play mistake-free football and catch some big breaks.

The Hurricanes had two interceptions and a fumble returned for touchdowns last week against West Virginia.

On offense the ‘Canes have Santana Moss, an All-American candidate at receiver, and sophomore quarterback Ken Dorsey throwing to him. The passing game will have to be controlled by Temple’s young core of defensive backs if the Owls are to have a chance against Miami.

Add to that the fact that many consider Miami’s backfield to be the best in the nation. Stopping them won’t be as hard as the Hurricane’s air-attack, though.

November 4, Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, Mass., noon.

For homecoming last season the Owls defeated Boston College (0-1,2-1) at the Vet. This year the Owls travel visit Beantown for their yearly match with the Eagles.

Senior quarterback Tim Hasselbeck leads the Eagles this season after recovering from off-season surgery. The Eagles have some potent threats on offense that the Owls will have to stop, including Hasselbeck and running back Cedric Washington, who finished second in Big East rushing last season.

Boston College currently ranks at the top of the conference in pass offense and defense and might be too much to handle for the Owls’ defense and its offense.

However, the Eagles will have to improve their run defense if they hope to stop Tanardo Sharps and the Owls’ rushing attack.

November 11, Veterans Stadium, noon.

Syracuse (0-0, 1-2) has had a slow start to their 2000 campaign. The Orangemen have one of the Big East’s top rushers in Dee Brown, who finished sixth in the conference last season.

The sore spot for the Orangemen this year is in their passing game. Troy Nunes, who passed for over 1,000 yards last season, is the front man quarterback, but the team lost its leading receiver from last season, taking away from its air attack.

A victory over Syracuse is in range for the Owls, who haven’t won in this series since 1983 and are 8-22-1 all-time against the Orangemen.

November 18, Veterans Stadium, noon.

It comes down to this: if the Owls, who went 3-1 in non-conference games, can win three games out of contests with West Virginia, Rutgers, Boston College and Syracuse, a bowl game bid should be locked up.

But Temple post-season life might come down to the season finale against Pittsburgh.

With wins against Virginia Tech and Miami unlikely, if not impossible, Temple will have to put up a great showing in the rest of their games if they hope to win one of the three spots granted to the Big East for bowl games.

Pittsburgh (1-0, 4-0) will look to stand in the way of that. So far this season the Panthers have been on a rampage and boast a great defense.

Pittsburgh defeated Rutgers last week pretty handedly one week after their 12-0 win over Penn State.

What the Panthers’ offense has been lacking this season, their defense has certainly made up for. It remains to be seen if the team can keep up the same intensity during contests with Miami and Virginia Tech.

If the Panthers can remain on their current pace, it might be tough for them not to win a bowl bid. There are two bowl games that have to-be-determined spots and four Bowl Championship Series bowls. Eight teams will take the BCS spots.

At least Virginia Tech or Miami will probably take one of those BCS spots. That will leave at least three bowl bids, maybe four, for the Big East.

Three other Big East teams other than Miami and Virginia Tech will probably get in as well.

If Temple keeps up its winning ways, one of those three spots might go to them. It would be Temple’s first bowl since the Garden State Bowl in 1979.

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