Boston College has become a veteran of late-December bowls, making the Emerald Bowl an unsurprising destination for the Eagles.
The shocking part will be their opponent.
Southern California's disappointing finish dropped the Trojans out of the BCS for the first time since 2001, with a Dec. 26 trip to San Francisco and a matchup with BC serving as their consolation.
USC won at least 11 games and a share of the Pac-10 title each of the last seven years, finishing all of those seasons in the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl. The Trojans (8-4), though, were unable to continue those trends in 2009.
The departure of quarterback Mark Sanchez for the NFL made freshman Matt Barkley the starter, and the 19-year-old led the Pac-10 with 12 interceptions. The Trojans also dealt with inconsistency on defense, allowing more than 35 points three times after having done so twice prior to this season since coach Pete Carroll was hired in 2001.
USC was 6-1 and ranked fourth in late October, but lost three of its final five games and fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since the end of the 2001 season.
"It just feels so different," Carroll said. "It's so different than what we've done over our career. We've tried to find our way and battled. It just hasn't ever really kicked in like we would have liked it to have done."
The Trojans' tumble began with a 47-20 loss at then-No. 10 Oregon on Oct. 31 in which they allowed 391 rushing yards, and Stanford racked up 325 more in a 55-21 win at USC on Nov. 14.
After losing once at home from 2002-08, the Trojans fell for the second time in three home games in their Dec. 5 finale, 21-17 to Arizona.
"It's tough to swallow, it is," wide receiver Damian Williams said. "I'd be lying if I said this was expected. It was just a growing experience. Every single person on this team has learned a lesson."
Barkley learned a number of tough lessons as he struggled at times to adjust to the college game. He averaged 169.0 passing yards in the last five contests and threw at least one interception in eight straight games.
The Trojans will play in a non-BCS bowl for the first time since Carroll's first season, but they will still be favored to beat BC.
The Eagles (8-4) were inconsistent in their first season under coach Frank Spaziani, but reached a bowl for the 11th straight year despite being picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division in the league's preseason poll.
All 10 of BC's bowls during the streak took place from Dec. 25-31, including a win over Colorado State in the 2003 Emerald Bowl, then known as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl.
The team won eight straight bowl games before a 16-14 loss to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl last year. Despite its underdog status, the Eagles will be grateful to face a high-profile opponent like USC.
"I think it's good for our program. It's interesting, and I think it's good," Spaziani said. "Whenever you play somebody like that, it gets everybody's attention."
Losses to Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina derailed the Eagles' bid to reach the ACC title game for the third straight season. Shaky quarterback play was one of the major issues, as freshman Dave Shinskie completed 52.8 percent of his passes -- last in the conference -- and threw 13 interceptions along with 14 touchdowns.
The 25-year-old Shinskie played minor league baseball for six years before joining the Eagles, who had no quarterbacks with college experience on their roster at the start of the season.
BC has leaned heavily on sophomore running back Montel Harris, who set school records with 264 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a 52-20 win over North Carolina State on Oct. 17.
Harris totaled 561 yards in the last four games, getting a career-high 41 carries in a 19-17 win at Maryland to close the regular season Nov. 28. He has run for 1,355 yards and 13 TDs this year.
"What we accomplished, from where we started and what we have -- and I don't mean that by talent -- all the potholes, all the situations, all the things we had to overcome, it was a testament to the kids and they should be very proud of what they did," Spaziani said.
Perhaps the Eagles' toughest task was playing without linebacker Mark Herzlich, the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008. Herzlich has been battling bone cancer but is hoping to return next season.
USC swept the only two meetings with BC in 1987 and '88. The teams are scheduled for another home-and-home series in 2013 and '14.