Temple's chance to bridge chasm between haves, have-nots

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA – College football universes will collide Saturday night.

A member of the Power 5 elite (Notre Dame) takes on one of the best of the Group of Five (Temple).

Differences between the two entities go beyond whether they choose to spell out the number or not.

It’s a money thing. It’s a talent thing. It’s perception. It’s …

Well, maybe it depends on perspective.

From the outside looking in, there could be a perceived smugness of the exclusive fraternity called the Power 5, which includes the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Southeastern, Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences, and Notre Dame. Then there’s the inferiority complex of the Group of Five: American Athletic, Conference-USA, Mid-American, Sunbelt and Mountain West conferences.

It’s football’s great divide; the textbook definition of the haves and have-nots.

Games like this are being put on display to let the public measure the chasm.

Temple (7-0) is one of three undefeated teams (along with Houston and Memphis) in the American Athletic Conference. The Owls, who already have beaten Penn State this season, have another opportunity to strike a blow for a league that believes it belongs with the big boys.

“You can’t overstate how much (Temple’s game with Notre Dame) means (to the AAC),” said Mike Aresco, commissioner of the AAC since it formed in the mad conference scramble four years ago. “Anytime you play Notre Dame, it’s a great atmosphere. It gives the kind of attention we haven’t had. It’s a coup for Temple.

“It’s a great opportunity for Temple and a great opportunity for our conference. Things like that don’t come along every day. You have to take advantage of it.”

Add a prime-time national television audience and the presence of ESPN’s GameDay, and the ingredients for something special to happen are there.

“We struggle with that Power 5 (concept),” Aresco said. “We play good football in this conference. We recruit based on the high level of football we play.

“We want to be in the ‘Power 6’ conversation. We stress that. We’re closer to the (Power 5). We have schools with good brand names in big markets. We pay our coaches well. We also have a great TV deal, in terms of exposure. We don’t have the revenue that the other (Power 5) conferences have, although we think that will change in two years.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly can examine the landscape from an insider’s point of view and detail the differences between Power and Group.

“Probably personnel retention; personnel  — so that's a lot of times salary, dollars, facilities, infrastructure ...,” said Kelly. “Those two things probably are the biggest when you talk about the differences between the two, which equals revenue.

“At the end of the day, TV contract — revenue dollars. If you boil it down, it's really investing back into your program in personnel, in recruiting and infrastructure and that's probably the biggest difference between the two. It certainly doesn't mean that you can't put together a really good football team if you're not in the Power 5.

“The question is: Can you do that year-in and year-out? That's what you have to be able to do when you don't sometimes have the same resources that you do in the Power 5.”

Odds are, once third-year Temple head coach Matt Rhule finishes this enchanted run, he’s going to be lured to a Power 5 program where he can become a millionaire. That’s just a fact of life in football, which makes sustaining success difficult.

“It’s not easy to build a program of this quality, and it’s not easy to sustain it,” Aresco said. “A lot of our schools have built formidable programs.

“(Rhule) has built a very, very, very rugged defense. He also found some gems, like (senior linebacker) Tyler Matakevich. He wasn’t highly recruited and he’s one of the best linebackers in the country.

“Matt’s built a very solid foundation. He’s recruited some great players on both sides of the line of scrimmage. If you’ve got an eye for recruiting, finding players you can develop, you can find good players.

“Plus, they have 26 seniors on Temple’s team. All of them are on track to graduate in the spring.”

Matakevich, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound senior weakside linebacker, has more career tackles (420) than any other active player in college football.

“Tyler Matakevich is a guy who had just one (scholarship) offer — Temple,” said Steve Wiltfong, recruiting director for 247Sports. “UConn (Matakevich is from Stratford, Conn.) didn’t even offer.

“Temple signed Matakevich and he’s a four-year starter (at weakside linebacker) who gets 130 tackles a year (he has 65 tackles, 4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 4 interceptions this season). That was (the Temple coaches) trusting their gut after going to see him in practice.”

Wiltfong said that’s a common practice in assembling a team at the Group of Five level. The five-star recruits make their big-time commitments early, then it’s time to find the next wave of players. Most of the scholarship players on the Temple roster participated in the school’s summer camps.

“When you’re recruiting at a place like Memphis or Temple, you’re not going to beat the Power 5s out very often for kids,” said Wiltfong. “Maybe every once in a while you can win a head-to-head with a lower-tier Power 5 (team), but you’re not going to win a lot of those battles.

“The good thing is, from a skill-players position, there are so many guys that can play: So many guys that can run; so many guys with length; so many guys that can catch it; and so many guys that can throw it.

“At the quarterback position, it’s hard to gauge who’s going to be able to slow it down on the next level. That’s something that doesn’t show up in evaluations.

“For schools like Temple, they have to wait it out to see who the big-time Power 5s want, then go after the next crop. In that next crop, there’s not a whole lot of difference.

“To me, the biggest difference between Power 5 football and mid-major football is depth in the trenches. There are a lot of guys who can run between the tackles and gain seven or eight yards.”

Until now, the AAC and the Group of Five have been hanging their hat on Central Florida’s Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor a couple years ago. Saturday night, there’s a bigger fish to fry.

Temple beating Notre Dame would be an opportunity to prove Power 6 wouldn’t be such a strange suggestion.

“The first step is to continue to compete effectively,” Aresco said. “(AAC teams are) a field goal away from being 11-0 against Power 5 teams this season. We need to get better attendance, which we’re doing (Lincoln Financial Field, which seats 69,176, is sold out for Notre Dame). We pay cost of attendance (for scholarship athletes). We treat our athletes the same way (as Power 5 schools). We have to convince the media and the fans that we belong in the conversation.

“It’s not something that’s going to be easy, but we’ve always treated difficulty as something we have to overcome. You can’t use that as an excuse.”

Temple has an opportunity to rock a couple universes.

Temple head coach Matt Rhule speaks to his players at the NCAA college football team's practice facility, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)