TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — EJ Manuel, of Florida State, and longtime friend Tajh Boyd, of Clemson, have known each other since middle school and are now the top rated passers in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into a top-10 matchup today.
Boyd got the best of things last year in Clemson’s 35-30 win, while Manuel watched from the sidelines with a shoulder injury. Both players and teams are expected to be full strength when Florida State plays host to the 10th-ranked Tigers.
“We are both going to be opponents and competitors and want to beat each other,” Manuel said. “That’s the fun part about getting to play your friends.”
Manuel, who has played just six quarters so far this season, has thrown for 525 yards and six touchdowns and one interception. Boyd has passed for 747 yards, a half-dozen scores and one pick.
Once again among those in college football’s stratosphere, the fourth-ranked Seminoles (3-0, 1-0 ACC) have a chance to show whether they learned from last year’s early-season collapse when they host 10th-ranked Clemson (3-0, 0-0) in today’s marquee game nationally.
“We’ll be ready,” Fisher promised.
After soaring to fifth in the polls early last season, the Seminoles fell to Oklahoma 23-13 in their third game and then lost the next two at Clemson and Wake Forest by identical 35-30 scores.
“’’I think we’ve learned some lessons,” Fisher said. “Handling all that stuff that goes with those type of games.”
None are bigger today than when the Seminoles and Tigers meet in a matchup of ACC schools ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2007.
The Seminoles are a two touchdown favorite and should be according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who said earlier in the week that few teams in the nation, other than possibly top-ranked Alabama or No. 2 Louisiana State University, would be favored to win in Tallahassee this year.
“If I’m on the outside looking in, I’m probably picking Florida State, too, but that’s why we play the game,” Swinney said. “They’re playing at home. That’s always a big advantage.”
He’s worried about Florida State’s defense, which has allowed a field goal all season.
“Defensively, they are probably as talented as anybody we’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Swinney, who is 32-19 since replacing Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season. “If they dominate our offensive line, it’s going to be a long night.”
And then there’s Manuel, a fifth-year senior who is 16-4 as a starter and leads the ACC in passing efficiency. He’s in charge of keeping the ball away from Clemson’s offense, with Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
“They are going to score points just like we are,” Manuel said. “We have to be ready to combat that.”
A rejuvenated running game at Florida State led by senior Chris Thompson and sophomore James Wilder Jr. will be key. Thompson, who returned from a broken back he suffered last season, rushed for a career-high 197 yards in last week’s 52-0 win over Wake Forest.
“Definitely makes my job a lot easier,” said Manuel, who has never played against Boyd.
Boyd, however, must contend with the Florida State defense that ranks first nationally in virtually all categories after beating up on some overmatched FBS teams.
Boyd didn’t have much trouble last season against Florida State’s defense. He threw for 344 yards and three TDs.
Florida State’s defensive unit led by coordinator Mark Stoops has spent a lot of time in the film room reviewing that game.
“He has two weapons — his arms and his legs ... and that makes it more dangerous,” said defensive end Bjoern Werner, who already has 6.5 sacks this season. “Everybody on the d-line has to play smart. We have to hunt together.”
The winner takes a huge step toward winning the Atlantic Division and a berth in the league’s title game on Dec. 1 in Charlotte, N.C., and both sides know it.
“In order to get to the goals we want to get to, we can’t drop any,” Manuel said.
“If you lose this game, you don’t control your destiny, Swinney said. “You’re at the mercy of other things happening.”