ACC: Meineke Car Care Bowl first take
Dec. 26, 4:30 p.m., (ESPN)
For the second straight season, the Tar Heels will head back to Charlotte to face one of the better teams in the Big East. Last year’s 31-30 loss to West Virginia was one of the ACC’s most entertaining bowls, but UNC has missed the offensive playmakers this season that made it that way.
While this could have been a much better season for UNC, it also could have been a much bigger disaster. Instead, the Tar Heels made an impressive turnaround that began with a stunning road upset of Virginia Tech and are making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1997.
UNC won four of its last five games, and has won five straight over ranked teams dating back to last season. UNC’s defense, which has been the reason for its success, will be tasked with slowing down Pitt’s standout freshman running back, Dion Lewis, who ranks third in the nation in rushing.
No. 17 Pitt is coming off a disappointing loss to Cincinnati in the Big East championship, but has the No. 16 scoring offense in the country at 33.17 points per game. Carolina has the ACC’s top defense and ranks sixth in the country, allowing just 267.8 yards per game. The Tar Heels are also No. 9 in run defense, No. 13 in pass efficiency defense and No. 13 in scoring defense.
To add a little extra motivation to this bowl game, UNC will have to prepare for Pitt knowing that their rival, NC State, was able to beat the Panthers.
North Carolina couldn't get much closer to home for the holidays, and it's exactly what executive director Will Webb was hoping for. The Tar Heels will face a West Virginia team that finished third in the Big East and hasn't scored more than 15 points in its past two games. Still, shifty quarterback Pat White will present challenges for the Tar Heels' defense. White is 81 rushing yards shy of his third straight 1,000-yard season. He'll be throwing into a defense that has 19 interceptions this season. UNC's top priority will be stopping the run, as West Virginia averages a conference-best 217.2 yards per game.
The Tar Heels have had an inconsistent season, which was a product of its inconsistent offense. Butch Davis switched quarterbacks after a 17-15 loss to Maryland, but starter T.J. Yates, who was injured for half of the season, didn't look like himself until the season finale against Duke. The Mountaineers have the best scoring defense in the Big East, holding opponents to 15.9 points per game. UNC will need a strong performance from tailbacks Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston in order to open up the passing game for standout receiver Hakeem Nicks, who leads the ACC with 83.8 yards per game.