SAN FRANCISCO - This was the year Southern Cal wanted to stay home for a bowl game.

Instead, the Trojans spent the holidays a few hundred miles north, where they will take on Boston College in the Emerald Bowl tonight at AT&T Park. The BCS championship game will be held in their backyard, at the Rose Bowl.

For a school that has known nothing but Bowl Championship Series games the last seven seasons and always has its sights on playing for a national championship, this could be seen as a letdown.

"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."

Southern Cal (8-4) has played in four consecutive Rose Bowls, including those of the last three 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.

With the championship being held at the Rose Bowl this season for the first time since the Trojans lost to Texas four years ago, they were hoping to stay home again come bowl season.

That looked to be a real possibility early in the season after USC won at Ohio State behind freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. But then came a loss at Washington, blowout defeats against Oregon and Stanford, and a season-ending loss at home to Arizona that dropped the Trojans into a tie for fifth place in the Pacific Ten Conference and into the bowl game here.

"When we started losing some games, we knew we were going to be in a different setting than we'd been in," Carroll said.

Tonight, the Trojans could be without star running back Joe McKnight, who did not arrive until Wednesday night because of an investigation into whether he violated rules by using an SUV that did not belong to him.

The opportunity to play in the Emerald Bowl against a heralded opponent such as USC is a major accomplishment for Boston College (8-4), which was picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division after a difficult off-season but ended up second.

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 the reigning ACC defensive player of the year, Mark Herzlich, had a rare form of bone cancer. Herzlich hopes to return next season, but has served as an inspiration to his teammates this year.

Then, led by a 25-year-old freshman quarterback, Dave Shinskie, who had spent his time since high school pitching in the minors, the Eagles were blown out in their ACC opener before recovering to win their 11th straight bowl bid.

"The fact that we won games surprised a lot of people," center Matt Tennant said. "We lost guys to the NFL. Mark was diagnosed with cancer. We went through the coaching change. A lot of things happened to us but we stuck together."

And the reward is a matchup against one of college football's most storied teams.