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Game Preview: UNC at #23 Pittsburgh

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North Carolina at Pittsburgh, 7:00 PM, ESPN

Biggest game of the Larry Fedora era? Yes, unless UNC wins then next week versus Duke will supersede this one.

UNC heads on the road for a Thursday night nationally televised showdown with Pittsburgh looking to move one step closer to winning the Coastal Division. Both teams come into the game sporting identical 6-1 records overall. Pitt has cracked the AP Top 25 at #23 while the Heels remain just outside in the others receiving votes section of the poll. The Tar Heels are the only Power 5 conference team with one loss not ranked thanks to what continues to be an inexcusable season opening loss to a bad South Carolina team. Pitt on the other hand has just the three point loss to current #10 Iowa. By virtue of having the better loss Pitt is slightly ahead of UNC in the polls with both teams facing similar ACC and non-conference schedules.

For UNC this game presents a massive opportunity to finally take a step forward for a potential 9-10 win season and a shot at winning the division. The last time UNC was in control of its own destiny this deep into the season was in 2008 when the Tar Heels needed only to beat Maryland, NC State and a then awful Duke team to clinch the Coastal Division. UNC lost 17-15 to the Terps followed by the wholly inexplicable 41-10 loss at home to NC State. Then again since all those wins were ultimately vacated it was probably for the best.

UNC's football history has been a long list of disappointments and falling short when given a chance to break through. Even under Butch Davis, with oodles of NFL talent, the Tar Heels couldn't get over the eight win hump. In 2010 when UNC was loaded to make a serious run, the NCAA troubles led to personnel attrition on the defensive side that left UNC a shadow of what might have been. In Larry Fedora's first season, 2012, UNC had plenty of talent and even won eight games. However UNC lost three games by a combined nine points including to Duke on a last second touchdown and 28-27 to Wake Forest in a game Gio Bernard missed due to injury. Even then UNC won the tiebreaker and a berth in the ACC Championship game only to have NCAA sanctions stop the Heels from participating in that and a likely winnable bowl game.

The Tar Heels can begin putting all those years of disappoint behind them tonight. The 2015 team is built to compete for the Coastal Division and is positioned to finally get over that eight win hump. It is the sort opportunity that doesn't come to Tar Heel football often. After the fallout from NCAA sanctions and two very difficult seasons, Larry Fedora finally has the kind of offensive unit to do what he was selling when he first arrived. There is experience and a defense playing well enough for a powerful offense to win.

There is plenty on the line tonight. UNC can moved into the Top 25 during the final half of the season which is a rarity. The Tar Heels would clear a significant hurdle towards trying to win the Coastal Division. In terms of the big picture UNC can, starting with this game, experiencing a real breakthrough. It can be the kind of breakthrough which could give the program some much needed momentum in the current season and beyond.

UNC 31 Pitt 27