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Pittsburgh Panthers vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Preview and Prediction

James Conner

James Conner

The full slate of ACC matchups doesn’t begin until next Saturday, but one of the season’s most important Coastal Division games will be played this week. Pittsburgh heads to Chapel Hill on Saturday and the result of the contest will go a long way in determining one of the participants in the conference title game.

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The Panthers suffered their first loss on Saturday, a nail-biting 45-38 defeat to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. It was a tough spot for Pitt, coming off of an emotional reunion win against Penn State then going halfway across the country to face an angry Oklahoma State team that had lost in controversial fashion to Central Michigan the week before.

Meanwhile, North Carolina was at home playing what most thought would be a tune-up game with James Madison. But the Dukes hung around for much of the first half — even holding a lead after the first quarter — before the Tar Heels opened things up for a 56-28 win.

This is the 11th game in a series where North Carolina holds a 7-3 advantage.

Pittsburgh at North Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Spread: North Carolina -7

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Three Things to Watch

1. Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman

Peterman had a solid 2015 season, throwing for 2,287 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. But the senior from Jacksonville, Fla., has been inconsistent so far this season. He did not have his finest game against the Cowboys last Saturday, completing less than half of his passes. The wide receiver position is a weak spot in the Pittsburgh offense, so it is more than just Peterman that is responsible for a struggling passing attack, but the Panthers need to improve in this area and it starts with the guy throwing the ball.

2. The Pittsburgh Running Game vs. the North Carolina Run Defense

Peterman doesn’t have to put up Deshaun Watson-esque numbers to be effective for Pittsburgh. That’s because the Panthers have a stellar running game led by the amazing James Conner. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year may not be all the way back, but with 281 yards rushing in three games it appears that he is close. Conner will be going against a UNC defense that is having trouble stopping the run once again. James Madison gained more than 200 yards on the ground last week, one of the reasons why the Tar Heels enter this game ranked 106th in the FBS in rushing defense.

3. Mitch Trubisky and His Receivers

Pittsburgh is currently 10th in the FBS in rushing defense, but 124th against the pass. As a result, North Carolina will probably look to put the ball in the air a little more often this week. Trubisky is starting to come into his own and had another big game against James Madison. He was distributing the ball very well as Ryan Switzer led the team with just five catches but seven players had multiple receptions. Pittsburgh can pressure the passer, especially star defensive end Ejuan Price. But if Trubisky is given time, he will be able make plays for the Heels.

Final Analysis

Both North Carolina and Pittsburgh have offensive strengths that can exploit defensive weaknesses on the other side. The Tar Heels haven’t been able to control opposing rushing attacks and Pitt has James Conner getting back into high gear. On the other hand, Penn State threw for 332 yards and Oklahoma State passed for 540 against the Panthers' defense and UNC has a developing quarterback with several good targets. But North Carolina, with Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, are a threat running the ball while the Pittsburgh passing game has shown little life this year. That balance, coupled with being at home, gives North Carolina the victory.

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Prediction: North Carolina 35, Pittsburgh 27

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.