Three weeks after No. 17 Pittsburgh blew a 21-point lead at home to end its BCS bowl hopes, the Panthers have gone from Sugar Bowl-bound to a matchup with North Carolina in the Meineke Bowl in what will be a virtual road game.

Today's game (4:30 p.m., ESPN) has all the traps that lead to a flat performance: a team that wants to be elsewhere dealing with a hostile crowd.

But Pitt's seniors see a larger goal: getting the program closer to its glory days.

Pitt hasn't won 10 games since 1981, when Dan Marino was firing tight spirals and the Panthers were regular national championship contenders. And if Pitt (9-3) can overcome its BCS disappointment, its matchup with the Tar Heels (8-4) could be one of the top mid-tier bowl games.

Among the subplots:

* Pitt freshman running back Dion Lewis, the Big East's offensive player of the year, faces the Tar Heels' stout defense, which ranks sixth in the nation overall and ninth against the run.

* Pitt star receiver Jonathan Baldwin will go one-on-one with North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney, who has returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns.

* Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt faces Butch Davis. They worked together on Jimmy Johnson's staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami and the Dallas Cowboys, winning a national championship and Super Bowl together along the way.

"There's an awful lot of just great memories of our families together, trips that we took with the staff and all of the things that coaching staffs go through," Davis said. "It's rare and unique, I guess, where someone that you spent that much time around and have so much respect for that you end up playing each other."

Meanwhile, Southern California will travel to San Francisco to take on Boston College in the Emerald Bowl tonight (8 o'clock, ESPN), trying to avoid a letdown after missing out on a chance to play in the national championship game in its backyard at the Rose Bowl.

"People have been asking me the past couple of years if we were disappointed to play in the Rose Bowl, and I never understood that," coach Pete Carroll said. "Our players like to work out; they love to play games. I can guarantee you that they're going to play this game like it's the national championship game."

USC (8-4) has played in four straight Rose Bowls, including the last 3 years, when the national championship was decided at the other BCS sites and the trip to Pasadena was seen by some as a consolation prize.

A loss at Washington, blowouts to Oregon and Stanford and a season-ending loss at home to Arizona dropped the Trojans into a tie for fifth place in the Pac-10 and into the Emerald Bowl against Boston College.

The Trojans could be without star running back Joe McKnight, who didn't arrive in San Francisco until Wednesday night because of an investigation into whether he violated rules by using an SUV that doesn't belong to him.

The opportunity to play against a heralded opponent like USC is a major accomplishment for Boston College (8-4), which was picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic division following a difficult offseason.

The turmoil began when coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing for the New York Jets opening and replaced by longtime assistant Frank Spaziani.

Then came the shocking news in May that reigning ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Herzlich, of Conestoga High, hopes to return to the field next season, but has served as an inspiration to his teammates this year.

Also today, Marshall (6-6) and Ohio (9-4), who used to play in "The Battle for the Bell," a riverboat bell symbolizing the Ohio River separaring Ohio and West Virginia, will vie for the championship of the Pizza Bowl (1 p.m., ESPN).

Noteworthy

* Gator Bowl officials are making sure Bobby Bowden's former Florida State players have the chance to see his final game. The Gator Bowl Association and the host city of Jacksonville reportedly made complimentary tickets available to former Seminoles who played for Bowden, who is retiring after the game Jan. 1 against West Virginia. Bowden started coaching at Florida State in 1976.

In a bowl game:

* At Honolulu, Kyle Padron threw for an SMU-record 460 yards, leading the Mustangs (8-5) to a 45-10 victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl - SMU's first postseason appearance in 25 years.

The 18-year-old Padron was 32-for-41 and completed two touchdown passes.

The loss was the fourth straight in the postseason for the Wolf Pack (8-5).

Nevada linebacker Andre Davis did not play in the game after he was dismissed by the team and had been arrested days earlier on suspicion of shoplifting. Honolulu police say Davis was detained this week by security at a Waikiki store before he was turned over to authorities. *