Thursday December 24th, 2009

No. 17 Pittsburgh (9-3) vs. North Carolina (8-4) Dec. 26, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Reason to watch: Can the Panthers recover from one of the most excruciating losses of 2009? Pitt is playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (aka, the MCCB) because it blew a 21-point lead to No. 5 Cincinnati in the de facto Big East championship game back on Dec. 5. Cincinnati's 45-44 last-minute victory sent the Bearcats on to the BCS and their coach, Brian Kelly, on to coach at Notre Dame. It also sent the Panthers and coach Dave Wannstedt straight into letdown mode. But it's not all bleak. Pitt has won at least nine games in two straight seasons for the first time since the days of Dan Marino, and there's enough talent in place on both side of the ball for this team to compete for conference championships next year and beyond.

Keep an eye on: The Tar Heels defense. Pitt's offense relies heavily on the awesomeness of true freshman tailback Dion Lewis, who rushed for 1,640 yards (third-best in the country) and 16 touchdowns in the fall. But there is balance. Quarterback Bill Stull has been very efficient, and he has a game-breaking partner in the passing game in oversized wideout Jonathan Baldwin. The UNC front-seven -- keyed by defensive tackle Marvin Austin and linebacker Quan Sturdivant -- is a powerhouse, ranking ninth in the country against the run. If the group can contain Lewis, Pitt will have to be able to move the ball through the air. Carolina is pretty good against the pass, too, and the outcome of the game could well hinge on whether the Heels are able to force the Panthers into any turnovers.

Did you know: Four of the seven MCCBs, played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, have featured a team from the Tar Heel State (UNC, NC State and Wake Forest).

Final analysis: This is actually quite an interesting matchup, featuring two teams that began the year with BCS aspirations and figure to be players on the scene for the foreseeable future. Both sport strong defenses that are best up front, but while the Pitt secondary is vulnerable to attack, this year's Carolina offense seems short on the weapons to exploit that particular weakness. The Panthers have a lot more offensive talent, and unless they turn the ball over indiscriminately or make catastrophic mistakes on special teams (the way they did against Cincinnati), they would seem to have the advantage in this game. Look for Pitt to maintain the edge, and for Lewis to establish himself as a front-runner for the 2010 Heisman Trophy.

The pick: Pitt 24, North Carolina 21.

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