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Pitt has crucial Thursday night matchup with North Carolina

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t too often that games against 1-8 opponents are big but here we are.

Pitt’s football team plays a ‘big’ game this week, facing a 1-8 North Carolina team at home. It’s a big one because it’s one of the rare times this season that the team is in the national spotlight. The game is on Thursday night and the Panthers will have the full attention of the country in a prime time game on ESPN.

More importantly, it’s a big one because of where the Panthers sit as a team. At 4-5, no one would argue that this has been a great year. But the reality is that the team still has a shot at a bowl game and beating the Tar Heels here would pull them even at .500. Pitt will still need to win one of their final two games against Miami or Virginia Tech to ensure a bowl invite and while they won’t be favored to win either one, stealing a victory is more than possible.

For the Panthers, though, this is a trap game of sorts and with two difficult games left, this is one they can’t lose.

North Carolina is 1-8 but good luck trying to convince me this is a gimme game. Historically, this is a program that’s given Pitt a lot of trouble. I know a lot of times we’re inclined to look past that stuff but recent history is always relevant to me. Pitt hasn’t beaten the Tar Heels since joining the ACC back in 2013 and over these last several years, many of the players on North Carolina’s teams are obviously still here. They’re missing some guys that have killed Pitt these last few seasons but they still have quite a few on the roster that have enjoyed success against the Panthers.

To this season since that’s more relevant, the Tar Heels probably aren’t quite as bad as their 1-8 record indicates. They lost by only five to a respectable Cal team in the opener. They lost by only six to a 6-3 Virginia team that just knocked off Georgia Tech. Most impressively, they just lost by only five to unbeaten Miami. The Tar Heels have some really ugly losses this year led by a 59-7 beatdown at the hands of Virginia Tech. But they’ve also played a tough schedule and aren’t all that far from the same 4-5 record Pitt currently has.

Like Pitt, North Carolina has had some quarterback issues and has played four different guys there this season. Freshman Chazz Surratt and senior transfer Brandon Harris kind of went back and forth and in their last game against Miami, sophomore Nathan Elliott came in after Surratt went down for an injury. Junior quarterback Manny Miles has had some light duty as well, giving them four quarterbacks that have seen time this year.

My guess is that we’ll see Surratt out there. Head coach Larry Fedora said after the Miami game that he was probably able to come back in and play so, after a bye week, chances are good he’ll be ready to play.

From a comparison standpoint, while Pitt hasn’t been great on either side of the ball this season, the Tar Heels have been worse. The rank near the bottom of the country in total defense, giving up about 450 yards per game (Pitt is 90th averaging about 420 yards per game). The Panthers also hold a small advantage in total offense, accumulating about 20 more yards per game there. These teams aren’t all that far apart statistically even though the records might indicate otherwise.

I like the Panthers to win this one, in part because the game is at home. They’re also favored by more than a touchdown and this just looks like a game they should win, troubles against North Carolina notwithstanding. But anything less than a great effort Thursday probably puts the game in jeopardy. I think these two teams (particularly Pitt without Max Browne) are much closer than it might seem.

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