When Matt Rhule took over the head-coaching job at Temple prior to the 2013 season, he didn't have a timetable for reaching a conference championship. He is, however, a subscriber to the old school "five-year plan."
"I think it takes about five years to really get the program to be where you want it to be ... to get a program to the mindset and culture to where everything is synced and aligned," Rhule said Monday.
Given that standard, the Owls are well ahead of schedule. In Rhule's third season as head coach, his No. 22 Temple (10-2) squad travels to No. 19 Houston (11-1) to play in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday at TDECU Stadium in Houston (noon ET, ABC).
There is more than just the AAC title on the line. As the top two Group of 5 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, the winner is a virtual certainty to earn a coveted New Year's Six bowl bid, which is guaranteed to the selection committee's highest-ranked Group of 5 team at season's end. The winner likely ends up in the Fiesta Bowl or the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
The fact that the Owls, who were 2-10 in Rhule's first season in charge, are in this position this quickly is a testament to the job done so far.
Rhule's background worked in his favor. He spent six seasons on campus as an assistant in myriad positions from 2006-11, giving him a strong working knowledge of Temple and the challenges it faced to become successful.
"I don't know that I had a timetable in mind. I thought we would be better the first year than 2-10 to be quite honest with you," Rhule said with a laugh. "I had a little bit of a head start because I had been in the program six years and only missed one season so maybe we had a little bit of a head start on it."
Temple has registered numerous milestones this season. The Owls raced out to their first 7-0 start in school history, they found themselves in the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time, they held a spot in the Associated Press Top 25 for five weeks, which is a first for the program. Their season-opening win over Penn State was the first against the Nittany Lions in 74 years and 41 meetings.
If they win Saturday, they'll achieve another first: a conference championship at the FBS level.
At Houston, conference championships are something the Cougars have achieved but haven't won one since 2006 when the program was in Conference USA. They're experiencing tremendous success under first-year head coach Tom Herman, jumping out to a 10-0 start this season before splitting their last two regular-season games against UConn and Navy.
When the Cougars ended preseason training camp, Herman felt like he had a championship-level defense to pair with a dynamic quarterback. Both have held true -- the Cougars defense has come up with 28 turnovers this season, tops in the American and fifth in the country and the team's turnover margin (plus-15) is second-best nationally. They also have one of the league's best rushing defenses, allowing the second-fewest yards per game (117.5) and the fewest yards per carry (3.28).
Greg Ward Jr. has been one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks, throwing for 2,502 yards and 16 touchdowns and completing passes at a 69 percent clip while rushing for 893 yards and 17 touchdowns. That formula has worked virtually all season long.
"We ain't changing," Herman said Monday. "We've prepared for games like this since January ... it was evident in the Louisville game, the Cincinnati game, the Vanderbilt and Memphis and Navy games. We've won every big game we've played so far."
Houston's last crack at a conference championship came in 2011, when the Cougars played Southern Miss for the C-USA championship. Had the Cougars won, they would have earned a BCS bowl berth, but they were soundly defeated 49-28. Now, just more than four years to the day of that gut-wrenching defeat, Houston is in a similar position with a chance to write a different ending
In an interesting coincidence, these two teams met in the American's first conference game in 2013. Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was in Philadelphia that day to do the coin toss prior to the game and he'll be in Houston on Saturday to do so again.
"I'll do so again Saturday with a great deal of pride," Aresco said. "It's very fitting that these two teams are playing in our first conference championship game."