TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Too much was left on the field that night in Raleigh, N.C., for EJ Manuel to have completely brushed the moment aside. Too many "what ifs" remain, nagging questions that flutter through his mind from time to time, only to be brushed away with the purposeful focus acquired through five years of learning to play quarterback under Jimbo Fisher.
Yes, Manuel thinks about that loss to NC State, the lone blemish on Florida State's record as it closes in on an ACC championship, but it is only a flicker of remorse before it's gone.
"Sometimes I think about it for five seconds," Manuel said. "But I move on, because I live in reality."
That focus has helped keep Florida State's season from being highjacked by one nightmarish half of football, but as this season and Manuel's career draw to a close, the bigger question remains: What exactly is reality for this Florida State team?
It is perhaps the most fundamentally difficult argument in college football at the moment. While the debate about the relative strength of the three remaining undefeated teams might rage well into January, each team has created its own case to be named the best.
For the Seminoles, however, their biggest competition might be themselves. Their identity is strictly in the eye of the beholder at this point, and opinions vary wildly.
Is Florida State the 9-1 ACC juggernaut sidetracked only by a minor blip in a one-point loss on the road, or is it the conference bully, beating up on patsies without ever being exposed by a team with similar size and speed? Are the Seminoles the dominant behemoth that has routed every team it has faced on its home turf or the sluggish, mistake-prone road warriors who barely survived Virginia Tech a week ago? Is Fisher's crew the best of the one-loss teams in the nation, as he has FSU ranked on his ballot in the coaches' poll, or is it the show horse with little pedigree that ranks just 16th in the BCS computer averages?
There is ample evidence on all sides, and that's why there's still no sure answer as to just how good this Florida State team is, where it belongs in the polls or how it stacks up against its own history.
"I don't think we go into any game scared of somebody beating us," kicker Dustin Hopkins said. "It's cliched, but I feel we can beat anybody in the country, and I also feel we can lose to anyone in the country. If you don't show up, you can lose. That happened to us."
Oddly, it's not so much that loss that defines Florida State. The bigger knock has been the schedule and the lack of marquee wins.
According to BCS computer rankings, Florida State has played the 85th-toughest schedule in the nation this season, thanks in large part to a weak ACC slate and two FCS foes. The Seminoles have played just one FBS team with fewer than four losses.
That's not Florida State's fault, of course. The ACC wasn't supposed to be this bad, but Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and nonconference foe South Florida have been disappointments. West Virginia was supposed to have added some spice to the schedule, too, but the Mountaineers dropped their trip to Tallahassee in February, leaving FSU scrambling for a Week 2 opponent. That tweak has pushed one-loss Clemson ahead of Florida State in every computer poll, despite the fact the Tigers' one loss came at the hands of the Seminoles.
It's a quandary that lit a fire under Fisher this week, as he railed against the current BCS system, but Lamarcus Joyner said there's no point in worrying about earning love from computers.
"Sometimes you just have to deal with the cards life deals you," Joyner said. "The computers don't like the ACC. They love the SEC and other divisions. That's not in our power to fight against that. We feel like we're one of the best teams in the country."
Florida provides a chance for a second marquee win Nov. 24, but the ACC championship game likely will be a rematch against an opponent FSU already has beaten, and a showdown against the Big East champion in the Orange Bowl has so little box-office cache that some fans are hoping the Seminoles lose again and slip into the Sugar Bowl instead.
But while the schedule has forced Florida State to the backseat of the national conversation, there are plenty of other numbers that make the case Florida State belongs among the best of the one-loss teams -- or better.
The Seminoles opened the season ranked highly, reaching No. 3 in the AP poll before the NC State loss. Clearly the pundits saw talent, and of the six teams ranked higher than FSU to start the season, only Oregon remains undefeated.
The Seminoles' offense is impressive, the fourth-highest scoring team in the country -- ahead of top-ranked Kansas State and tied with red-hot Texas A&M.
The defense has been dominant, leading the nation in total defense, ahead of SEC powerhouses Alabama, LSU and Florida. For all the hype surrounding the NFL potential on Georgia's defensive unit, Florida State might have as many future first-rounders.
Only Oregon has outscored its opponents by more than Florida State. Only two of the Seminoles' 10 games this season have been decided by 10 points or fewer. Florida State is the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
"I do think that we are probably one of the better teams that has a one-loss record," Manuel said. "Obviously, [polls] are going to jump teams that have beaten the big teams but I think we are one of the best teams with one loss."
Fisher obviously agrees. He has Florida State fourth on his ballot in the coaches' poll, ahead of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. By his math, the Seminoles still would be in the mix for a national championship, and that might make that loss to NC State loom even larger. But Florida State isn't thinking about that for now.
Vince Williams said this season's team has helped turn the tide after more than a decade of disappointment, and an ACC championship, an Orange Bowl victory and a 13-1 season would be the new template for future FSU teams to follow.
And given the mammoth expectations that engulfed this team before the season, perhaps that is the more fair comparison -- not whether Florida State stacks up against Oregon or Notre Dame or Alabama, but where this season's team fits in its own school's history.
"I hear a lot of older guys who have been in the program before say that this may be one of the best teams," Joyner said. "I would think if you have guys like Peter Warrick, [Bryant] McFadden saying so, you just start to believe in yourself if guys like that say it, who have done it before."