Phil Snow had faith in the beginning, even when most didn’t.
The Owls’ defensive coordinator told alumni during the summer the team would be better than last season.
Despite losing three defensive starters to the NFL Draft and its leading receiver, Temple set the bar high to beat its historic 10-win season in 2015 that tied the mark set by the 1979 team.
“They all looked at me like I was crazy,” Snow said.
Wayne Hardin, who coached Navy from 1959-64 and led the Owls from 1970-82, was on the field for the coin toss before Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship between the two teams.
Hardin and former players like Tavon Young and Saledeem Major watched Snow, coach Matt Rhule and the rest of the Owls do something no Temple team ever has before: win a major conference title and have back-to-back 10-win seasons. The Owls added to their resume when they earned the No. 24 spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings on Sunday.
After the game, Rhule called The American “the sixth power conference” and said the winner of the conference should play in a New Year’s Six Bowl. He used the nationally televised broadcast to make a case for Temple, noting that the Owls’ three losses are all against bowl-eligible teams, including Big Ten champion Penn State, the No. 5 team in the College Football Playoff Rankings.
Temple will return to Annapolis, Maryland to play in the Military Bowl against Wake Forest University on Dec. 27. One reason Rhule said he chose the matchup was to play a school from one of the Power 5 conferences. The Demon Deacons belong to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Wake Forest started the year 5-1 but lost five of its last six games to close out the season. All five losses came to bowl eligible teams, including Florida State University, the University of Louisville and Clemson University, all ranked in the College Football Playoff.
The Demon Deacons will play in their first bowl game since the 2011 Music City Bowl.
“We’re looking forward to the whole experience and it will be a very challenging game,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “Temple’s had an outstanding year. Matt Rhule has just done a phenomenal job of rebuilding that program.”
The Owls avenged their loss to Houston in last year’s conference title game with a 34-10 win against No. 19 Navy. Temple scored 24 first-half points and limited the second-ranked rushing offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision to 168 yards.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo minced no words.
“They beat the crap out of us. … It was like they hit us with an overhand right with their offense and we could not respond,” he said.
As the players, clad in their championship T-shirts and hats, celebrated on the field after the game with confetti raining from the sky, senior linebacker Jarred Alwan walked around smiling and hugging teammates. He wore a WWE championship belt with the Temple “T” on the sides as he paraded around the field.
Redshirt-senior defensive back Nate Hairston said when the offense and defense compete in practice, the winner gets the belt. On Saturday, players passed the belt around after winning a conference title instead of a drill in practice.
The seniors continued winning after enduring mediocre seasons early in their careers. They’ve won 20 games in the past two seasons, the best stretch in program history, and will be the first to play in back-to-back bowl games.
“[What] we planned to do so many years ago finally happened and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” said redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who had his first career interception on Saturday.
“I just thought about everything that we went through and what it took to get to this point and understanding the work we put in, the relentlessness we had to have, the countless mornings we woke up early for practice or to do an extreme workout,” Reddick added. “Just to be here right now and I look back and think it was all worth it.”
Senior quarterback Phillip Walker completed 16-of-25 attempts for 199 yards and two touchdowns to win the game’s Most Outstanding Player Award. Alwan led the team with a season-high 13 tackles, stepping up after redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams got ejected for targeting in the second quarter.
Senior running back Jahad Thomas ran for 62 yards and scored the Owls’ first touchdown of the day. As he talked to reporters after the game outside the south end of the stadium, his mother, Connie Thomas, stood nearby, wearing a customized jersey that let everybody know who her son is. She watched as her son and Walker replicated their high school careers, struggling in the beginning, but ending with a championship.
“You think about all the moments, when we was 2-10 and 6-6 and not be able to go to a bowl game and them feelings of being in the locker room after losses,” Jahad Thomas said. “You don’t want to experience that again and to be in the situation that we were today, to be able to come back here again after losing last year, you know, the feeling is unbelievable.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.