Duke’s long-suffering football fans got an early holiday present when the Blue Devils were invited to Charlotte’s Belk Bowl, their first trip to a bowl game in 12 seasons.

On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. they’ll find out whether the gift is sugar plums or a big lump of coal.

Dukes Jamison Crowder (3) rolls over after catching the winning TD pass against UNC.

The Blue Devils (6-6) will try to break a four-game losing streak when they take on Big East co-champion Cincinnati (9-3) at Bank of America Stadium in the teams’ first meeting.

The Bearcats, who will play under interim coach Steve Stripling since Butch Jones was hired to be the new coach at Tennessee, are listed as seven-point favorites in the contest to be shown on ESPN.

“Doesn’t that just fuel anybody?” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said about being the underdog. “That’s kind of life. You love people telling you you can’t. And when somebody tells you you’re the underdog, they’re telling you you can’t win. I’ve always liked that role.”

Cincinnati, which like Duke will be in its first Belk Bowl, will be playing in its fifth bowl game in the last six years. Duke has played in – and lost – just two bowl games since its 7-6 win over Arkansas in the 1961 Cotton Bowl Classic.

“Generationally, that’s kind of hard to have a sense of that history,” said Cutcliffe, who was 4-1 in bowl games as a head coach during his tenure at Mississippi. “We do talk about that, and I want them to feel a sense of history because they play here. The history does indicate some tough times in recent years and a while back, but it also represents the best of the best.”

Cutcliffe said he’s most enthusiastic about the bowl game being an opportunity to build for next season.

“I can’t imagine that anybody around here is real satisfied right now,” Cutcliffe said of his team, which hasn’t won since the emotional 33-30 win over UNC that locked up bowl eligibility on Oct. 20. “This is an opportunity to end our season on a positive note, and it’s an opportunity to kick off 2013.”

Tonight’s contest will be the final college game for Duke quarterback Sean Renfree and wideout Conner Vernon. Renfree has completed 260 of 392 passes for 2760 yards and 18 TDs with eight interceptions this season, while Vernon has caught 75 for 955 yards and seven TDs. Jamison Crowder has caught 70 passes for 1030 yards and eight TDs.

“We won’t (be) rusty with the practices we’ve had … ”Crowder said. “Last year, we’d be on break right now, just pretty much relaxing. Football pretty much would be the last thing on your mind. Getting these extra practices in kind of keeps us football-minded throughout the year.”

Cincinnati’s Munchie Legaux has completed 120 of 230 passes for 1716 yards and 13 TDs with nine interceptions. George Winn has carried 227 times for 1204 yards and 12 TDs.

The Bearcats are 12th nationally in total defense at 373.8 yards per game.

“Just to get that taste of victory in the postseason, I think (would be) huge,” Duke center Dave Harding said. “Just getting to a bowl game is big. So far everybody has realized the huge advantage that it can have on developing next year’s team and making everybody better.”