When No. 8 Florida State and Virginia Tech meet Thursday night only the Seminoles will be playing for high stakes.
The Hokies (4-5, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) are in the midst of their worst season in 20 years and fighting just to become bowl eligible.
It's exactly the kind of setup Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel has warned his teammates about this week — a struggling team putting its best effort forward on a big stage.
"I think I saw that a little bit in the N.C. State game," Manuel said of Florida State's lone loss, 17-16 at N.C. State on Oct. 6. "Not to say that we took them lightly, but they played lights out, they had a good game. ... If they get a chance to knock us off, it will kind of make their season."
The Hokies have three games remaining, and need to win two to qualify for a bowl game for the 20th consecutive season. They still have games against Boston College and Virginia, but beating the Seminoles would be a big boost.
And despite how frustrating the season has been, Hokies cornerback Kyle Fuller knows they have the talent to win.
"I know what we can do," Fuller said. "I'm not feeling sorry for us. We can't settle. We've let a lot of games get away from us this season. We can't settle with that. We have to improve and gain back those games that we lost. This would be a great one to do it."
The Hokies and Seminoles (8-1, 5-1) have split four meetings since Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, each winning once when the matchups came in the ACC championship game. The Hokies have never seen a Seminoles team as accomplished as they will this time.
It starts with Manuel, who hails from Virginia Beach. He's completing 70 percent of his passes this season and has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also makes plays with his feet as Clemson learned when he threw for 380 yards and ran for 102 more in a 49-37 victory on Sept. 22.
With the very efficient Manuel at the controls, the Seminoles rank third nationally with an average of nearly 45 points per game. Making the challenge more daunting, they allow just 227 yards per game, best in the country, and rank in the top four in rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense (12 ppg).
A stout defense is the last thing the Hokies need to see.
In last week's 30-12 loss to Miami, they moved the ball well, but their only touchdown came on a 73-yard run by quarterback Logan Thomas. Several trips into the red zone came up empty, and a solid defensive performance was stymied by special teams mistakes that set up two short touchdown drives for Miami.
Coach Frank Beamer thought his team put it all together in a 41-20 victory against Duke on Oct. 13, but they followed that with a 38-17 loss at Clemson, and then last week's frustration against the Hurricanes.
He still believes it's only a matter of time before they get it all working again.
"When you get playing well, you get some momentum, you make a play, you make another play, now here comes a turnover," the coach in his 26th season said. "When you're on the other side of that, everything's kind of a struggle. I personally believe if you keep playing hard, all of a sudden, it's going to turn around. I do believe we're a good football team. We just haven't always played well."
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher expects them to see that turnaround on Thursday night, especially on the big stage.
"They're 4-5 and they're going to want a winning record and go to a bowl game, so this will be a significant game," Fisher said. "I think everyone looks at us this way. People look at us and target that and that's something we have to face and prepare for. We can't control how they play, all we can do is control how we play and how we prepare mentally to go in there and be ready to play a game on the road."
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