DETROIT - They're good and they know it, but Temple football players haven't won a thing yet.

"We have to prove it on the field," said head coach Al Golden at yesterday's Mid-American Conference football media day at Ford Field. "This is our most talented team, but the best players don't always make the best team.

"We have to make sure we're not just a bunch of talented individuals and that we come together as a team. I think our kids have done a good job of that."

The Owls were an overwhelming choice in the writers' poll to claim the MAC East crown and top West favorite Northern Illinois in the Dec. 3 league championship game.

Golden, now in his fifth season, has rebuilt the once moribund Temple program from 1-11 in 2006 to a team that went 9-4 last fall, just the Owls' fourth winning season since 1979.

A loss to Ohio University cost them the MAC East title and they then dropped a 30-21 EagleBank Bowl decision to UCLA.

Temple welcomes back 56 letter winners, 16 starters. The offensive headliner is sophomore Bernard Pierce. The 2009 MAC freshman of the year, Pierce rushed for 1,361 yards and scored a school-record 16 touchdowns.

"He's an excellent player and he has the benefit of coming into a very experienced and very strong offensive line," said Golden. "I can remember 3 years ago when we had tackles that weighed 260 and our guards averaged 280. We average 324 up front now, we're strong and we're long."

Pierce was slowed by injuries late last season.

"We did want to win that bowl game really badly," said Pierce, who's being touted as a Heismann Trophy candidate. "I could have contributed a little more had I been healthy. So I've been worrying about staying healthy and being durable for this year."

Three all-MAC linemen - junior center John Palumbo, senior right guard Colin Madison and senior right tackle Darius Morris - also return.

Senior safety Jaiquawn Jarrett is one of five All-MAC defensive players returning.

"It's been a long journey," Jarrett said. "I experienced some of the worst losses - some bad losses - and I experienced the good, the excitement. Being here for years and the relationships I've built with my teammates and coaches, I have another family."

Senior defensive end Adrian Robinson, the league's defensive MVP, is also back after collecting 13 sacks last fall. Other all-MAC defensive returnees include junior tackle Muhammad Wilkerson and senior linebackers Elijah Joseph and Amara Kamara.

Also returning is all-MAC kick returner James Nixon, kicker Brandon McManus and punter Jeff Wathne.

"We built the program on defense," said Golden. "We thought that was the quickest way for us to turn the program around and most particularly compete in this conference . . . because it's such a prolific offensive conference.

"Hopefully, this is the first year that the offense actually catches up with our defense."

Golden said the Owls still have several areas to work on.

"We need to clean up our passing game and we need some guys to step up at wide receiver," he said. "That's going to be more individuals maturing and stepping up than it's going to be scheme. We [also] have to become a better net punting team, I think that's critical. And we need to get better play from our corners."

The Owls open with three straight games at Lincoln Financial Field: the Sept. 3 opener with Villanova, a Sept. 9 game with defending MAC champion Central Michigan and a Sept. 18 date with Connecticut. After that are road games at Penn State, Army and Northern Illinois.

The Owls took 17 of 20 first-place votes to win the East, while Ohio grabbed the other three.