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Bowling for Ducks

In a season that has featured South Florida’s first top 25, top 10 and top five rankings, it’s fitting that the Bulls will close out the year with another unprecedented event: their first-ever game against a team from the Pac-10 Conference.

After accepting an invitation to play in the 74th annual Sun Bowl, South Florida (9-3, 4-3 Big East) will head to El Paso, Texas to face Oregon (8-4, 5-4 Pac-10) on New Year’s Eve. The game will also mark the first time a team from the Big East Conference will play in the prestigious Sun Bowl, the nation’s second-oldest bowl game. The Oregon Ducks have played in the Sun Bowl three times before, in 2003, 1999 and 1963.

For viewers looking for captivating storylines, the 2007 Sun Bowl offers an intriguing one. The game features a match-up between two teams that had incredible starts this season, Both squads rose as high as No. 2 in the nation before three straight losses dropped them from national title contention and cost them conference championships.

The clock struck midnight on the Bulls’ Cinderella season first, when an Oct. 18 loss to Rutgers followed by back-to-back losses to Connecticut and Cincinnati dropped USF from the rankings.

Three weeks after USF fell to Rutgers, Oregon – which had risen to No. 2 after an impressive win against No. 4 Arizona State – fell to unranked Arizona, effectively erasing the Ducks’ national championship aspirations. Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon suffered a season-ending knee injury in the loss and Oregon went on to lose its final two games of the season without the Heisman Trophy candidate under center.

While the Bulls defense will not have to deal with the play-making Dixon when they face the Ducks, it will still have to stop the nation’s 12th-ranked offense. Oregon averaged 462.1 yards per game, recorded 55 touchdowns and boasted the nation’s best rushing offense (243.25 yards per game) this season. Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart ranked 10th in the nation in rushing this season (122.4 yards per game) and ran for 163 yards in the Ducks’ last game, a 38-31 overtime loss to Oregon State on Dec. 1.

Even if the Bulls manage to shut down Oregon’s high powered offense, they might have trouble scoring on the Ducks, whose defense led the nation in tackles for a loss (9.3 per game) and allowed opponents to score on only 67 percent of their red zone opportunities.

The game will also feature a match-up between two of the nation’s top defensive ends, in South Florida’s George Selvie and Oregon’s Nick Reed.

Selvie was named Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week after tallying 31.5 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks this season. The sophomore needs only one tackle for a loss in the Sun Bowl to break the NCAA season record of 32 set by Western Michigan’s Jason Babin in 2003. Oregon’s Reed is leading the Ducks in both tackles for a loss (21.5) and sacks (11) this season.

To add to the Bulls’ list of groundbreaking feats this year, the Sun Bowl – broadcast on CBS – will mark the first time the team has played on national network television.

The Sun Bowl selection committee, which passed over the Pac-10’s third-place team (Oregon State) for the fourth-place Ducks, is excited about the chance to present a match-up between two teams that were both national title contenders at points during the season.

“The opportunity to have two former No.2’s in the Brut Sun Bowl was something that we could not pass up on,” said John H. Folmer, president of the Sun Bowl Association, in a press release. “It truly is an exciting storyline that I think fans nationwide would be interested in seeing on CBS.”