American Athletic Conference Championship Preview: Houston Cougars - Temple Owls
Eric Christian Smith - Associated Press

American Athletic Conference Championship Preview: Houston Cougars - Temple Owls

The season has come down to the top two teams in the American Athletic Conference preparing to duke it out in Houston on Saturday in the inaugural conference championship game.

Maxwell Rizer

It has been quite a ride in the American Athletic Conference this season. Four teams have found their way into the rankings at some point this season, and three of those teams are currently ranked going into the inaugural conference championship. Two of those teams, the Temple Owls and the Houston Cougars, are meeting on Saturday to determine who will finish on top of the conference.

Temple Season Recap

Temple has had a magical run in 2015 and they are not looking to stop anytime soon. The Owls started off the season on a high note with a historic win over the Penn State Nittany Lions that began the waves of national attention. Temple followed up their performance with six straight wins, including victories over East Carolina and conference favorite Cincinnati, and were ranked 21st going into their game against Notre Dame. National attention surrounded the Owls as they prepared to clash with the Fighting Irish, including ESPN’s College Gameday coming to Philadelphia and the game being televised on ABC in primetime. Temple gave Notre Dame a run for their money, but fell short in a game that showed the Owls can compete with the best teams in the country.

The next two weeks, Temple’s defense fell out of it’s usual form, allowing 84 points that resulted in a win over SMU but a loss to USF and fell to 8-2 on the year. As the Owls were out of the rankings, they came back strong and shut down Memphis, ranked 25th in the College Football Playoff Rankings at the time, and prevented them from scoring a single touchdown all game. On Senior Day in Philadelphia, Temple was ranked 25th and needed a win to make it to the conference championship. The Owls came out and held the Connecticut Huskies to only three points and won the game 27-3 to make it to the conference championship.

Houston Season Recap

Houston was an underdog going into the season and started off the season with an easy schedule, capturing wins against Tennessee Tech, Louisville and Texas State. Houston started off conference play against Tulsa and their high powered offense came out and dominated, winning 38-24. At home against SMU the following week, Houston continued to put up points, winning 49-28, moving to 5-0 and earning the attention of the polls. Before their game against Tulane, the Cougars were ranked 24th in the AP Poll and lived up to their ranking, steam rolling the Green Wave 42-7.

Houston could not be stopped, winning against UCF, Vanderbilt and Cincinnati to move to 8-0 before they hit the tough part of their schedule, beginning with the Memphis Tigers. The Tigers were still ranked at the time but were fresh off of a shocking loss to Navy and looked to rebound. The Cougars lost quarterback Greg Ward Jr. for the game and backup Kyle Postma had to step up and fill his shoes in a game that would decide their season. Down 20-7 at the half, Postma knew his role and stepped up late in the game, scoring three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 35-34 and keeping their undefeated hopes alive. Postma was still the starting quarterback when they traveled to Connecticut but Houston was stopped by UConn and lost their first game of the season, moving to 10-1 on the season. Houston now hosted Navy in a ranked matchup to decide the winner of the West Division. Ward Jr. was healthy to play and made his presence felt, leading the Cougars to a 52-31 routing of the Midshipmen and secured their spot in the conference championship.

Temple's Offensive and Defensive Performance

Temple has been focused on their defense all season and has been deemed one of the best in the country. The Owls have allowed only 18.8 points per game, which is 16th best in the country, and 328 yards per game, also 16th best in the country. Highlighted by Bednarik Award finalist linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the defense has been spectacular and kept them in games throughout the season.

As for the offense, they have been getting better every week of the season. With breakout running back Jahad Thomas and quarterback P.J. Walker, the Owls can put up points on the ground and through the air. They’ve been averaging 32 points per game, which is in the top 50 in the nation.

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Houston's Offensive and Defensive Performance

Houston has been electric offensively this season, averaging 42 points per game and 499 yards per game. Led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., the Cougars have been able to move up and down the field with ease. Ward Jr. can fire it deep to his receivers, primarily Demarcus Ayers, and use his feet to take off and gain positive yards.

Defensively, Houston has been very good at stopping the run, allowing only 117.5 yards per game, but have been subpar in covering the passing game, allowing 263 yards per game. Houston has also had trouble keeping their opponents out of the endzone, but their high powered offense has made up for it this season.

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X-Factor on Saturday

This game comes down to Temple’s offense vs. Houston’s defense. Houston’s offense vs. Temple’s defense will be exciting to watch, but Temple’s defense has been on a roll these last two weeks, not allowing a touchdown since their game against East Carolina. They should be able to contain their offense, but their own offense is what is at question. P.J. Walker needs to make smart reads at the line of scrimmage and look for his open receiver anywhere on the field to burn Houston’s defense. Houston’s defense needs to contain Temple’s run game, which consists of four strong running backs that have made clutch runs to keep drives alive this season. Whichever side comes out stronger will come out on top in this matchup.

What's At Stake?

This matchup has a New Year’s Six Bowl bid riding on it, as Houston and Temple are the two top teams from the Group of 5 conferences. The winner would could secure a bid for either the Fiesta Bowl or the Peach Bowl. Either team would benefit from going to either bowl game and it will bring a lot of positive attention for the American Athletic Conference.