NCF Nation: Meineke Car Care Bowl first take
Dec. 26, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Pittsburgh take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: Talk about your long fall down. Pittsburgh was a missed extra point away from winning the Big East and making the Sugar Bowl. Instead, the Panthers find themselves playing in Charlotte against a middle-of-the-pack ACC team.
Once Pitt gets over the disappointment, it should realize it still has the opportunity to win 10 games for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. But first it will have to beat a Tar Heels team that will be on home turf and matches up well in many areas.
The Pittsburgh game plan will revolve around true freshman running back Dion Lewis -- assuming Lewis can still walk after his 47-carry performance against Cincinnati. North Carolina, though, ranks ninth nationally against the run and has the No. 6-ranked overall defense in America.
Pitt has a lot more weapons offensively than the often-anemic Tar Heels, however, with receivers Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Dorin Dickerson. The game could come down to how Bill Stull plays; the senior quarterback was terrific most of the year but threw costly interceptions against West Virginia and Cincinnati in losses the past two weeks.
There shouldn't be many secrets in this game. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and North Carolina coach Butch Davis go way back and were defensive assistants together at Oklahoma State, Miami and the Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson.
North Carolina take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: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.
Dec. 27, 1 p.m., (ESPN)
North Carolina take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: 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.
West Virginia take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: For the first time since 2002, West Virginia won't play in a New Year's Day or a BCS bowl. But the Mountaineers are in the familiar position of trying to salvage a little Big East pride against North Carolina. The Tar Heels hammered both Connecticut and Rutgers earlier this season.
Though the game is within easy driving distance for its fans, West Virginia will basically be playing on the road in Charlotte. More importantly, the Mountaineers will have to recapture their previous offensive magic after totaling just 28 points in its final two games. They'll have to do so against an athletic North Carolina defense that held down Georgia Tech's triple-option rushing attack in a 28-7 win earlier this season. But never count out quarterback Pat White, who will try to cap his outstanding college career by finishing 4-0 in bowls.
It's been a disappointing season in many ways for the Mountaineers under first-year head coach Bill Stewart. Even the ever-optimistic Stewart admitted Saturday night that he's "not a happy camper" with the 8-4 record from a team that was picked to win the Big East. A bowl victory would go a long way toward easing some of the disappointment.