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UNC Football: The Nature of Inevitability

Death, taxes, and UNC beating Pitt.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Pitt at North Carolina Photo by Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the climactic scene of Avengers: Endgame, the final movie in the Infinity Saga of Marvel’s blockbuster superhero series, a large purple man called Thanos counts his chickens well before they hatch. Gloating in his assumed victory, the villain looks down upon a comparatively much smaller and thoroughly beaten Iron Man, and tells the hero “I am inevitable,” preparing and expecting to seal his ultimate victory in a snappy manner. The hubris of a villain nearing completion of his (or her, or their) master plan is a well-worn trope—from Thanos savoring victory before he’s won to a Bond villain monologuing for just long enough to let 007 escape and foil his plan, audiences across the world can generally identify the moment that marks the end for the antagonist.

The North Carolina Tar Heels have played the Pitt Panthers every year since 2013, and in each of these instances the team from Chapel Hill has left victorious. That’s six straight years of wins over Pitt, a streak that started when the Panthers joined the ACC in 2013 and spans seasons that have looked wildly different in Chapel Hill. In 2013, both teams would finish the season with identical 7-6 records. In three of the six seasons we’re focusing on, in fact, the two teams have finished with identical records. The 2013 season mentioned above, 2014 (6-7), and 2016 (8-5)—perfectly balanced, some would say, as all things should be.

When this balance is thrown off, however, is perhaps even more interesting. Of the three seasons in which the teams did not end the season with matching pairs in the wins and losses columns, only one finished with the Tar Heels sporting a more impressive record. Carolina added the Panthers to a laundry list of wins in the 2015 season, finishing with 11 wins to Pitt’s eight. In a successful season like that, the Tar Heels would obviously be expected to beat the Panthers. But what about the opposite? There are still two seasons we’ve not talked about yet: the two most recent and maybe most surprising wins over Pitt.

In the 2017 season, the Panthers were 4-5 and playing host to a Tar Heels team that limped into the game with only one win on the season. Pitt was favored by a touchdown at home, and wound up losing by three, becoming one of three total wins the Heels managed in the 2017 campaign. Perhaps even more egregious was what happened last year, when a Pitt team that would eventually be bowl eligible came to Chapel Hill early in the season, only to join Western Carolina University as one of only two wins the struggling Heels would manage in the 2018 season.

With a win over Pitt being such a constant fixture for the Tar Heels for the past six years, we’d be forgiven for becoming accustomed to it. It does seem inevitable, especially given the recent history of the series. We would do well to resist the urge to monologue, however. The Panthers are 6-3 on the season, with a win over then-undefeated and 15th-ranked UCF and a one-possession loss to the Nittany Lions of Penn State, who were ranked #13 at the time and have since climbed to #4. Each of the last three meetings between the Tar Heels and the Panthers has been decided by three points or less, and none of the six Carolina wins from the past six seasons have been by more than seven points.

Things have changed drastically for the team from Chapel Hill since the teams last met, as well. The return of the Mack has injected new life into the program; with a victory on Thursday, Carolina can match the win total (five) of its last two seasons combined. While extending the win streak to seven wins over Pitt would be a boost to morale after a close loss to Virginia, it may not be as much of a foregone conclusion as recent history would lead us to believe.

Thanos had his winning streak snapped just after delivering the line about his own inevitability. Here’s hoping that the Heels don’t fall into the same trap.