Manuel's legacy on line

Florida State QB EJ Manuel wants a benchmark victory -- and Clemson is coming to town Saturday. Melina Vastola/US PRESSWIRE

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- After Florida State wrapped up its final scrimmage of fall camp, EJ Manuel sat back and took stock of the moment.

Five years after he'd arrived in Tallahassee, this was his last scrimmage, and he'd been making a point to take mental notes of each of these final benchmarks in his college career.

"Every day signifies something for me," he said. "It's like, all right, it's my last third practice of the second week."

There are plenty of reasons for sentimentality this week, too, but what might define Florida State's showdown with No. 10 Clemson could instead be a first for Manuel.

Through five years, Manuel's career has been built as much as anything on consistency, but what his résumé lacks is that marquee performance on a big stage, that signature moment that provides the perfect inscription on a quarterback's legacy.

This week, Manuel gets his shot at creating that signature moment. The game against Clemson is in prime time, under the lights, in front of an expected capacity crowd, and, given the state of the rest of the conference, an ACC championship might be on the line.

"The fact that there's so much buildup going into the game," Manuel said, "that's something, when you grow up as a kid, you want to be a part of."

It's not that Manuel hasn't had big games before. He threw four touchdowns against Charleston Southern a year ago, scored twice through the air and twice on the ground against Duke, threw for 321 yards against North Carolina State.

But those games were largely afterthoughts, unremarkable preludes to a big matchup or a diminished coda in a season of lost expectations.

In his career, Manuel has started just four games against ranked opponents, and Florida State is 1-3 in those games. He has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in those games, but he has thrown six interceptions compared with just two touchdowns. Most importantly, however, it's been an awfully long time since Manuel last had a chance to showcase his skills against a top-tier opponent.

Manuel injured his shoulder in the second half against Oklahoma a year ago, leaving the game to Clint Trickett to finish. A week later, Trickett was the starter against Clemson, as Manuel was relegated to the role of cheerleader. The last time he started and finished a game against a team ranked in the Top 25 was the 2010 ACC championship game.

Now, nearly 22 months later, he gets another shot at the big stage.

"I'm extremely anxious. [This] is a huge rivalry, and [Clemson] is a great team," Manuel said. "The fact that I'm 100 percent healthy, not hurt anymore -- I'm excited about it."

Before last week's game against Wake Forest, Manuel delivered a stirring speech to his teammates. He'd given pregame speeches before, when the time was right, but it's become ritual this year. In the waning moments before a game, the locker room is his pulpit.

Manuel's message last week was more of a challenge. He wanted Florida State to dominate Wake Forest, to send a message, to quiet the doubters.

"I was going to the gas station [last week], and I grabbed one of [the student newspapers], and it was like, 'Is this the week FSU has trouble?'" Manuel said. "But I'm a positive person, you know?"

Florida State did send a message against Wake Forest, delivering a third consecutive dominant win. Manuel, on the other hand, still managed to fuel his critics.

He ended the first half just 5-of-11 passing. He missed a handful of big throws. His performance, according to Jimbo Fisher, was "solid," a noticeably tepid description after a 52-0 win.

That might be the most apt legacy for Manuel at this point. He has been good; he has made his mark; he has won 16 of the 20 games he has started. Solid.

But Manuel, too, knows there is more that will be asked of him before he leaves Florida State. Those benchmarks he passes with each new day grow increasingly significant, and this Saturday's game against Clemson is the biggest yet.

The stage is set, and Manuel is at the center of the spotlight.

"That's what you want to be a part of, that's what you want to play in, and the situation couldn't be any better," he said. "They're coming in undefeated with a great team, and we're undefeated and have a good team, as well. Now you just need to go out there and play it."