Luke DeCock

Win over Pitt would give UNC poll position

There is only a single one-loss team from a Power 5 conference that isn’t in either top 25 poll, the Associated Press media poll or the USA Today coaches’ poll.

Seventeen of the 18 major-conference teams that have lost once or are undefeated are in both polls, including two of the three Coastal Division teams unbeaten in ACC play.

North Carolina is not.

Among voters, the Tar Heels continue to pay the price for their season-opening loss to South Carolina. They have a chance to right that wrong Thursday night, when a win over No. 23 Pittsburgh would not only balance out the loss to the Gamecocks but give North Carolina a win over a top-25 opponent and address concerns about the quality of the Tar Heels’ opposition.

“We know how poorly we played against South Carolina,” North Carolina wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “This is a chance to bounce back from that, to show how much we have improved.”

The 6-1 Tar Heels’ biggest issue is that they haven’t beaten anyone of note, although their comeback win at Georgia Tech certainly looks better after the Yellow Jackets upset Florida State last weekend.

No matter how thin you slice it, the combination of North Carolina A&T, Illinois, Delaware, Georgia Tech and Virginia isn’t exactly going to scare anyone. In fact, a merely average team would expect to win all five of those games.

The thing is, there are several teams in the top 25 that haven’t really beaten a team better than Georgia Tech either, like undefeated Toledo (best win: Arkansas), Houston (Louisville) and Temple (Penn State).

Somehow, 6-2 Mississippi State is considered to have a better resume than North Carolina, having beaten Southern Mississippi, Northwestern State, Auburn, Troy, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky. Michigan and UCLA have two losses and only marginally better wins than the Tar Heels.

What all of those teams have that North Carolina lacks is either a zero in the loss column or a loss to a really good team. (In Mississippi State’s case, that’s Louisiana State. The Bulldogs’ other loss, to Texas A&M, is not looking so good.)

The Tar Heels managed to botch both of those categories in the first game of the season.

What’s holding North Carolina’s reputation back nationally, and this is painfully obvious, is that season-opening loss to South Carolina in Charlotte. And thanks to a combination of factors, that loss is being held against the Tar Heels to an extreme.

It was a nationally televised ESPN Thursday night game, so everyone saw Marquise Williams throw those interceptions. Everyone also saw just how mediocre South Carolina was, a team so lacking in talent that Steve Spurrier tossed in his visor halfway through the season.

If North Carolina is the team that it claims to be at this point, the Gamecocks should have posed little obstacle. But they did, which is why the Tar Heels are left seeking redemption. Their moment has arrived.

This week’s game at Pittsburgh is another Thursday night ESPN opportunity to show what they can do. If they lose, they’ll be out of top-25 contention and decried as profiting from a weak schedule, and they will have no argument on either front.

If they win, they’ll gain new respect from skeptical voters, have a strong case for a top-25 spot and take a giant step toward the Coastal Division title.

If the Tar Heels want the respect they spurned against South Carolina, it’s there for the taking on another Thursday night.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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