The Houston Cougars knocked off Temple to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game and as a result, got a coveted destination for the postseason.
Greg Ward Jr. ran for a pair of touchdowns in leading the Cougars to a 24-13 victory against the Owls. Houston ran out to a 17-0 lead in the first half, and unlike its results for much of the season, Temple was unable to come back.
"When you take over a job you really don t know how good you're going to be probably until training camp," coach Tom Herman said. "The one thing I did know is, if we were worth our salt as coaches, that we would be the most physically and mentally tough team on the field each and every Saturday. That always gives you a chance, and for the most part, we were that this season."
Houston was the highest rated team in a non-BCS league, and as a result will be playing in the Peach Bowl against the ACC's Florida State.
"You can't buy that advertisement," Herman said of the chance to play in a marquee bowl game. "You can't buy that energy and enthusiasm that brings to a university."
And the stakes of the title game can be seen in the fate of the runner-up Owls, which fell all the way to the Boca Raton Bowl. Mind you, this is the bowl the team wanted it told the AAC league office that it preferred that venue once it knew it wasn't getting the Peach Bowl slot.
As a result, it gets a matchup against of the top mid-majors a Toledo team that spent five weeks in the Top 25. But it's a Dec. 22 kickoff, and win or lose the Owls will be done with their postseason before many teams even begin to travel to their postseason destination.
Besides the Cougars, three other AAC teams play major-conference opponents. Memphis, which lost coach Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech but retains likely future NFL first round draft pick Paxton Lynch at quarterback, will take on the SEC's Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 30. Tulsa, meanwhile, will play Fuente's new school in the Independence Bowl, though Frank Beamer will coach the Hokies in the bowl game before heading into retirement. And Navy, which lost to Houston in its final regular-season game to miss out on a spot in the AAC title game, will play Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. That will come after the Midshipmen's regular-season finale against Army on Dec. 12, but the team won't have to worry about travel the game is played in Annapolis on the Mids' home field.
Of the remaining three teams, Cincinnati players got the best destination, earning a trip to the Hawai'i Bowl to face San Diego State. Given that Ohio isn't known for its warm winters, spending Christmas Eve in Honolulu beats whatever other options the Bearcat players might otherwise have.
South Florida gets the best storyline. It faces Conference USA champion Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl. Willie Taggart knows the Hilltopppers well he coached WKU before leaving to take the USF job.
And Connecticut gets Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26. It's a tough matchup against the Conference USA runner-up, but after going bowl-less since the 2010 season, the school hopes a lot of the Husky fans will choose to spend Christmas in sunny Florida instead of the frigid Northeast.
CENTRAL FLORIDA (0-12, 0-8)
Next: Season Complete
CINCINNATI (7-5, 4-4)
Next: vs. Cincinnati in the Hawai'i Bowl, Dec. 24
CONNECTICUT (6-6, 4-4)
Next: vs. Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl, Dec. 26
EAST CAROLINA (5-7, 3-5)
Next: Season complete.
HOUSTON (12-1, 7-1)
Game: Houston 24, Temple 13. The Cougars jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half and never looked back in winning the American Athletic Conference title game. Greg Ward Jr. completed 11 passes but did most of his damage on the ground, rushing for 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Takeaway: A year after serving as the offensive coordinator for Ohio State's national championship squad, coach Tom Herman brought the Cougars to the pinnacle of the AAC. Had Greg Ward Jr. not been injured and missed most of the UConn game, the Cougars might be taking an undefeated record into the Peach Bowl.
Next: vs. Florida State in the Peach Bowl, Dec. 31
MEMPHIS (9-3, 5-3)
Next: vs. Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 30
NAVY (10-2, 7-1)
Next: vs. Army, Dec. 12
SOUTHERN METHODIST (2-10, 1-7)
Next: Season complete
SOUTH FLORIDA (8-4, 6-2)
Next: vs. Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, Dec. 21
TEMPLE (10-3, 7-1)
Game: Houston 24, Temple 13. The Owls bad habit of starting slow finally proved fatal in a key moment, as Temple fell behind 17-0 and never drew back even in its AAC title game loss. P.J. Walker threw for 287 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off on the game's first drive that set up Houston's first touchdown.
Takeaway: Temple's defense has been excellent all season, but its Achilles Heel has been handling dual-threat quarterbacks. Houston's Greg Ward Jr. may be the best in the league, and he shredded the Owls on the ground in the title game. All three of the Owls losses this season came against teams with quarterbacks that were threats both outside and inside the pocket.
Next: vs. Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 22.
TULANE (3-9, 1-7)
Next: Season complete.
TULSA (6-6, 3-5)
Next: vs. Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl, Dec. 26.