Unexpected ACC showdown: North Carolina vs No. 23 Pitt
The defending ACC Coastal champion is last in the standings. The team that once dominated the division is second-to-last. The team that was expected to dominate the division when it entered the conference 10 years ago but never has just fired its coach.
The Tar Heels and Panthers play the first game of a three-week round-robin with No. 22 Duke on Thursday night at Heinz Field that will likely decide which team goes to the ACC championship game. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami are trying to salvage seasons.
The pleasantly surprising Panthers and Tar Heels are just starting to gain some national attention. Are they for real?
''My answer would be we'll find out this weekend,'' said first-year Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
The Panthers have been killing it in close games. They have played five straight one-score games and won four straight since losing 27-24 to Iowa on a 57-yard field goal in the final seconds.
''If it's a close game, you have to step up and make something happen,'' Narduzzi said. ''Our offense did it this weekend and our defense did it this past couple (weekends). But you have to win close games, that's the name of the game.''
North Carolina, meanwhile, has been crushing everything in its path since letting a game it should have won against South Carolina in week one slip away. The Tar Heels have the No. 1 offense in the ACC and dual-threat quarterback in Marquise Williams. Pitt's defense ranks in the middle of the ACC pack in yards per play, but Narduzzi got the Pitt job because of his time coordinating some of the best defenses in the country at Michigan State.
''They mix things up quite a bit,'' North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. ''Quite a bit of blitzing and exotic blitzes, too. They've been in every game down to the end and they've found a way to win them.''
Some other things to know about an unexpectedly big ACC game.
DINKS AND DUNKS: Tennessee transfer Nate Peterman has settled in as the Panthers quarterback, but Pitt's passing game is mostly short stuff. The Panthers have only 11 completions of more than 20 yards, second worst in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The result is a strange stat line for one of the best receivers in the country. Tyler Boyd leads the ACC in catches with 53 but is averaging only 9.2 yards per grab. No other player in the league with 23 or more catches is averaging less than 10 yards per catch.
THE D GENE: North Carolina has one of the most improved defenses in the country under new coordinator and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik. The Tar Heels are sixth in the conference, allowing 4.89 yards per plays this season. Last season they were last in the ACC, allowing 6.53 yards per play.
''They're very, very sound,'' Narduzzi said. ''They line up, you know what they're going to do, and they do it well.''
ROUND ROBIN: North Carolina hosts Duke on Nov. 7 and Pitt is at Duke the following Saturday.
SERIES: North Carolina has won both meetings with Pitt since the Panthers joined the ACC three years ago and both games were decided by one score. The Tar Heels beat Pitt 40-35 last year and 34-27 the year before.
STREAKS: North Carolina's six-game winning streak is the Heels' longest since 1997 when they won eight straight.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP