"This is the closest we've ever come to playing a professional football team." -- Coach Dick Crum of North Carolina

Thursday night at Three Rivers Stadium, the University of North Carolina will face No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh and if the Tar Heels can upset the six-point favorite (9 p.m., WDVM-TV-9), they could take over the top spot in the wire service polls.

North Carolina's running sensation Kelvin Bryant, 1,085 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight games last season, is healthy again and 13 other starters are returning. But the Panthers have 18 of 22 starters back from a team that went 11-1 last season and edged Georgia, 24-20, in the Sugar Bowl.

Naturally, Carolina Coach Dick Crum, a scholarly-looking, low-keyed guy, attempts to downplay the nationally televised attraction, but admits, "This is the biggest opener I've ever been involved in."

Coaches generally prefer patsies for openers, but big bucks from CBS persuaded both schools to alter their schedules. It originally was the third game for both teams.

"We're both in the same situation," Crum said, neatly overlooking the fact that Pitt will be playing its first game under new Coach Serafino (Foge) Fazio. "It forces you to be a better team earlier. We're much better right now than we were at this time last year."

Crum's outward concern upon arriving here Tuesday was that his players would be too high emotionally, but the fact that they will have nine days to come down before taking on Vanderbilt in Chapel Hill should be comforting.

More realistically, his biggest worry is stopping quarterback Dan Marino and a trio of outstanding receivers. Marion completed 226 of 380 passes (59.5 percent) for 2,876 yards and 37 touchdowns last season.

One reason why Marino was so successful last season was his offensive line, anchored by 279-pound all-America tackle Jimbo Covert. Marino was sacked only eight times all year. "Usually the best defense against a drop-back passer is a strong rush, but their pass protection is excellent," Crum said. " . . . We'll try to keep a good steady rush and contain the wide receivers."

In addition to trying to limit Marino's effectiveness, the Tar Heels are going to have to find a way to score against an experienced defense -- nine starters returning -- that led the nation in both rushing and total defense.

"It's not going to be a nothing-nothing game," Crum said with a chuckle. "They average four touchdowns a game. I'd hate to get into a scoring contest with them, but I guess we'll have to get at least four to win."