The two teams facing off in the 74th annual Sun Bowl are nearly mirror images of each other.
With USF awaiting its Pacific-10 opponent, required by the conference to be the third-place finisher, Oregon received the other invitation as Southern California won the conference.
“All the coaches are excited about playing Oregon because it’s a Pac-10 team, which we haven’t played before,” USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “We know we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Both teams were in contention for the national title before their seasons were derailed by three-game losing streaks.
USF earned its highest-ever ranking at No. 2, following a 64-12 blowout of in-state rival Central Florida in Week 7 of voting and the first week of BCS rankings.
Losses to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati knocked the Bulls out of any ranking, but they were able to turn around their season by averaging 48 points per game and closed out the year at No. 21 in the latest BCS rankings.
Oregon reached No. 2 four weeks after USF by defeating Arizona State 35-23. Like USF (9-3), the success was short-lived as the Ducks (8-4) fell to an unranked Arizona.
“They were in the same situation we were in, which is to have an opportunity to play for a national championship,” Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said. “They are loaded with talent, and to play a team of that caliber is what college bowl games are all about.”
The matchup was ideal for the Sun Bowl committee as it passed up Oregon State, which beat Oregon 38-31 in double overtime Saturday, to select the Ducks. Oregon State defeated Missouri 39-38 in last year’s Sun Bowl.
“We are truly excited about having the opportunity to host the University of Oregon,” said Sun Bowl selection committee chairman John H. Folmer. “The opportunity to have two former No. 2’s in the Brut Sun Bowl was something that we could not pass up on. It truly is an exciting storyline that I think fans nationwide would be interested in seeing on CBS.”
Not only did the Ducks lose their high ranking against Arizona, Heisman Trophy candidate Dennis Dixon saw his year come to an early end as he tore his ACL.
“Anytime you lose your starting quarterback, it’s going to affect your football team,” Burnham said. “(Backup quarterback Justin Roper) has a few games under his belt, and with a few more reps in practice, I’m sure that he’ll be up to speed.”
Even without Dixon for the final three games, Oregon has the Pac-10’s top offense and ranks 12th in the country, averaging 462.8 yards per game.
Without its quarterback, Oregon has turned to junior running back Jonathan Stewart, who finished 10th in the nation with 1,469 yards and 10 touchdowns. Stewart is averaging 122 yards per game this year.
“Stewart is one of the best running backs in America, and I was impressed with his (163-yard) performance against Oregon State,” Leavitt said. “It’s going to be very difficult to slow him down. He is as good as anyone we’re going to see.”
One of the strengths of the Bulls defense has been their ability to stop the run. Against Central Florida they contained Kevin Smith, the NCAA’s leading rusher, to a season-low 55 yards, and have held opponents to 112 yards per game.
“We’re really excited about the matchup – I’m looking forward to getting to practice and see what we can do,” Burnham said. “Stewart is going to be a great challenge for us and hopefully we’re up for it.”