SQ American Athletic Conference Championship Preview

Now that rivalry week is behind us, it’s time to follow up with our second-favorite week: conference championship week. This week SQ will be bringing you coverage of the numerous conference championships to be played out on Friday and Saturday. We continue our coverage with the earliest game played on Saturday (Noon EST); the AAC Championship, featuring Houston and Temple.

Storylines Heading Into the Game

New Year's Six bowl appearance awaits the winner — If winning their conference wasn't enough motivation for both teams, there is another huge incentive for the conference champion. With the two highest ranked non-Power Five teams facing off in No. 19 Houston and No. 22 Temple, it is basically guaranteed that the winner will receive a bid to a New Year's Six bowl. In what will likely be the Fiesta or Peach Bowl, the AAC champion will have a chance to show the nation how good they truly are, when they face off against a Power Five squad or Notre Dame.

Whichever team draws the Houston/Temple winner shouldn't take them lightly because of what has happened in the past. Last year, the Group of Five representative, Boise State, beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl 38-30. And the year before that, AAC champ UCF, led by Blake Bortles, defeated Baylor, also in the Fiesta Bowl.

Both head coaches getting interest from bigger programs — Due to their impressive seasons, Tom Herman and Matt Rhule have had to answer questions about coaching vacancies at schools like South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland and Southern California. Both coaches have said that answering questions about other coaching jobs is nothing but a distraction to to their players. Herman, in front of his players, ended the rumor that he was going to be the new coach at South Carolina, and recently agreed in principle on a contract that would keep him at Houston.

Because this is something that both teams have dealt with all season, I'm sure that both teams will be completely focused on the game, but it could be in the back of the players' minds.

Temple looking for first conference championship since 1967 — Two seasons ago, in Matt Rhule's first season, Temple finished with a 2-10 record. Needless to say, things didn't look great for Rhule. Fast forward to present day and Rhule has his squad primed for a big-time game and a chance to win the school's first conference championship in 48 years.

Key Stats

33 — The number of touchdowns that Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has accounted for this season. It is no secret that the Cougar offense revolves around the dual-threat QB who has rushed for 17 touchdowns and thrown for 16 more, all while only throwing 5 interceptions.

24 — The point total that Temple has reached or exceeded in all of their wins. In their two losses against Notre Dame and USF, the Owls, who average 32 points per game, failed to reach 24 points. Similarly, Houston has scored more than 24 points in every game except for their lone loss of the season against Connecticut, when they only scored 17 points. This game won't be a defensive battle, but if one offense struggles in the first half, they may be in trouble.

117 — The number of rushing yards that both teams have allowed on average this season. Whichever team can stop the opposing team's rushing attack will most likely win this game because the ground game is a huge aspect of both offenses.

Key Players

Demarcus Ayers, WR, Houston- Greg Ward Jr.'s go-to receiver has had a spectacular season with 1140 yards, six touchdowns, and one ridiculous one-handed catch. 

If Temple wants to slow down the explosive Cougar offense, it will be extremely difficult to shut down Ward Jr. completely, so they might want to center their focus on Ayers. It wouldn't be the first time that the Owls focused on shutting down a receiver; Temple nearly upset Notre Dame earlier in the season when they limited Fighting Irish star wide receiver Will Fuller to 46 yards and a touchdown. On the other hand, if Ward Jr. can consistently find Ayers through the air, it may be a long day for the Owl defense.

Jahad Thomas, RB, Temple — Put simply, the key to offensive success for Temple revolves around Jahad Thomas. The junior running back is 26th in the nation in rushing with 1188 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also being a dangerous kick returner. Unfortunately for Thomas, Houston ranks 13th in the nation in rush defense, so it will be a tall task for not only Thomas but the Owl offensive line as well. If Temple can establish the run against the Cougars, Thomas will draw extra defenders, which will open up the passing game for Temple QB P.J. Walker.

Projection- The American Athletic Conference Championship game will come down to which team can create points off of turnovers. Everybody knows both teams can put up plenty of points, but which team can take advantage of the other team's mistakes? Under Tom Herman, Houston ranks third in the nation in turnover margin, while the Houston offense has been a well-oiled machine, averaging 500 yards a game. 

Temple will fight to the end, but Houston has too much offensive firepower, and remember: the game is being played in the Cougars' stadium, so it is essentially a home game for Tom Herman's squad. Houston wins 38-28.

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