Expectations are high for UNC football. An overwhelming favorite to repeat as Coastal Division champions, they have a massive target on their back. Some may scoff, expecting a collapse after an unexpected 11-1 season. In a division that has been among the most unpredictable over the past 10 years, it’s hard to begrudge anybody for rolling their eyes.
It doesn’t help that the schedule is a bit more challenging than last year. Road games against Illinois, FSU, and Miami all present possible obstacles, and most fully acknowledge this. The "neutral" opening game against UGA presents an opportunity to gain immediate relevance, but even most fans may admit this is going to be a tall task. (For the record, I fully expect a double digit victory against UGA).
Anyone can look at the schedule and identify those as tough contests. Those are the sexy games, with the sexy opponents (yeah, sure, we can include Illinois). However, if we were to identify a trap game, or consider it a "surprise" if UNC were to lose, I wouldn’t count any of those games. A loss against those teams may be disappointing, but most are fully aware that losing in a few of those environments is a very real possibility.
Some may point to VA Tech or Georgia Tech as difficult opponents. Sure. I won’t disagree with that, but we almost always expect tough games from those schools. It’s the same with Duke and N.C. State. Rivalry games always pose a threat due the emotion of the players and fan bases. That does not include last season’s glorious first quarter drubbing of, arguably, the 4th best football program in the state of North Carolina over the last five years. Congrats, Wolfpack.
Instead, the one game that really and truly scares me, and could prove the difference maker in the ACC Coastal Division, is the home game against Pittsburgh. Yes, UNC has defeated Pitt the last three seasons. No, none of them were comfortable wins. All three wins were one possession games. Only one of those games could be classified as a "shoot out", as UNC fans have become accustomed to. That game was in 2014 when defense was optional.
For whatever reason, the Panthers always sneak up on the schedule, and by the time the game is over, UNC fans are left with heart palpitations, more questions than answers, and a sense of relief that somehow the boys in light blue survived. After three years, the team and fans need to get the message. Pittsburgh will consistently be a dark horse threat in the Coastal, and provide a perfect kryptonite to UNC’s strengths.
Now in year two of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure, after a solid 6-2 conference record last season, Pittsburgh is ready to take the next step to gaining a foothold within the conference. They are traditionally a conservative, run-first, pro-style, smash mouth football team (more on that in a minute). A Mark Dantonio disciple, Narduzzi has built his team around a reliable run game. This year Pitt’s backfield will host two former 1,000 yard rushers, with Qadree Ollison and 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner.
Both averaged over five yards per carry in their last full season; 5.3 ypc for Ollison in 2015, and 5.9 ypc for Conner in 2014. Conner missed most of last season with a torn MCL, and then was diagnosed with lymphoma in December of last year. All competition aside, it’s a blessing he is back, healthy, and ready to terrorize opponents again.
That successful running game also returns four starting offensive linemen and their starting quarterback Nathan Peterman. The left side is protected by Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, both of whom were all-ACC selections last year. Peterman isn’t flashy behind center, but he is effective (20 passing TDs), efficient (61.5% completion percentage), and with an average of 6.5 ypc on the ground, mobile enough to keep defenses honest. Plus, he has four of the top six receivers from last year returning. Granted, none of them are Tyler Boyd (91 catches, 926 yards), but the experience should be more than serviceable to complement a vicious rushing attack.
The only real question for their ground game is who will be starting at center. Early projections had freshman Gabe Roberts slated at one point. By the time they come to Chapel Hill, that question should be answered. Narduzzi understands this game, even with all the spread and up-tempo evolution, is still won in the trenches. He has built his offense around that philosophy, and now has the upperclassmen and experience to exploit that strength.
Unfortunately for Pitt opponents, Narduzzi also brought in a new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, who will be more willing to spread the field while still focusing on a powerful rushing attack. UNC fans may recognize it when they see it. Canada was at N.C. State where his offense racked up 69 total points in the past two seasons. Canada’s offense did this despite not having anything similar to the all-around talent Pitt brings to the field this season. Providing him two shiny toys in the backfield will be a far cry from the skill sets he had at N.C. State, and be a direct threat to a still unknown UNC defense.
(Fun fact: Jacoby Brissett of N.C. State had very similar numbers last season to Pitt’s Peterman, both through the air and on the ground, despite being in a more QB friendly offense. But remember folks, N.C. State has struggled because the divisions are unfair and skewed. Not because of coaching or talent.)
Not to neglect the defense, Pitt also returns their top four defensive linemen, top four linebackers, and top four defensive backs. They boast some serious depth to a defense that, similar to UNC’s last year, was better than anticipated. Also similar to UNC, they are expected to take another leap this year as the second year coaching staff integrates more complex schemes. Depth and complexity can be a potent combination. If that experience can find a way to force a few more turnovers (just 16 in 2015), then that grinding, two-headed monster of an offense may just get the space it needs to breathe a little easier.
Some won’t be swayed by the basic premise laid out above. Most will just assume Pitt will be Pitt, and UNC will find a way to win at home. In other words, most fans will fall into that typical trap game mentality. That is a mistake. This game has "UNC basketball on the road after finals week" vibes written all over it. That kind of game that makes you re-evaluate your mental state and wonder "How did this happen?" even though you know exactly how it happened.
As the fourth game of the season, UNC will likely enter 1-2 or 2-1. The defense will likely still be fluid and developing. Mitch Trubisky will only be facing his third real test of his brief career as a starter (sorry JMU). The coaching staff, using a play-calling by committee approach, may forget to give Elijah Hood the ball when they are in the red zone. Florida State beckons with the fifth game. If Pitt pulls this "upset", and I would not call it such a thing, then UNC faces a very real possibility of leaving Tallahassee at 2-3, already in a two-game hole in the standings.
With a loss to Pitt, the rest of the season would hang under a weekly cloud. Every Saturday will turn into an emotional roller coaster of apathy and addiction where we pray the Coastal Division just turns into its annual crapshoot so UNC can have a chance to win a tie-breaker for the title. Conversations will turn to basketball, and "next year" will become the mantra. All of those are depressing options.
Beating Pitt is the only way to guarantee the optimism hangs around the football team beyond October 1st.