- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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Florida State can't officially lock up the ACC Atlatic Division with a win tonight, and Virginia Tech won't necessarily scratch its way back into the Coastal Division race with a win either, but for both teams, their seasons may largely be defined by this game.
If FSU wins, only battered Maryland sits between the Seminoles and the ACC championship game. If the Hokies win, it means a small bit of redemption during a lost season and a chance to avoid the ignominy of finishing at .500 or worse.
"It's a hard environment," EJ Manuel said of Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium. "Any team that goes in there and gets a win, you've earned it. We'd be fools to think we're not going to get their best game of the year. They may not have played as good as they had in years past, but I don't think we're going to see the same team we've seen on film the past couple weeks. We're going to see a great team, extreme energy, guys flying around. I know we're going to get their 'A' game."
With that in mind, here are a few key matchups and numbers to watch as Florida State and Virginia Tech get ready to face off.
NOLES TO WATCH
James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman. Florida State would love to control the ground game, and Wilder and Freeman have shown they're more than capable of doing that, even without injured starter Chris Thompson. Where they're more likely to be tested, however, is in the passing game, where Virginia Tech loves to bring the blitz on defense. How well the two young running backs can recognize and pick up blitzes will likely play a big role in how well FSU can throw the ball on the Hokies' D.
Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine. Florida State's last game against Duke marked the first time in four years the Seminoles finished without a sack, though it wasn't as if Werner and Carradine didn't have their chances. They routinely pressured and hit Duke quarterbacks, but simply couldn't bring them down before the throw came out. The challenge will be a bit different against the mobile Logan Thomas, who is Virginia Tech's leading rusher this season, but getting to him early and often could be the difference in controlling the Hokies' passing attack.
Cason Beatty. It's been a rocky season for Florida State's freshman punter, who has already had two punts blocked -- one potentially costing FSU a game -- and shanked a couple others. That's a concern against Virginia Tech's vaunted "Beamer Ball" special teams -- even if that unit hasn't exactly been a strength for the Hokies this season. Coach Frank Beamer has a history of being aggressive, and FSU needs to ensure its punting woes have been fixed before taking the field in Blacksburg.
HOKIES TO WATCH
Thomas. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Thomas presents an interesting challenge for Florida State's defense. He's mobile, with good speed, as evidenced by his 73-yard TD run against Miami last week. He's got a strong arm, too. That means FSU's defense will need to be particularly cautious when Thomas moves outside the pocket, and it will likely require more than one tackler to bring Thomas down.
Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller. The Virginia Tech receiving tandem represents two of the top big-play targets in the ACC. Davis (36 catches for 686 yards) and Fuller (29 for 547) are two of just four ACC players to average at least 18 yards per catch this season. The other two are both on FSU's roster: Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin.
Jack Tyler. The linebacker's 9.44 tackles per game ranks third in the ACC this season, and his 9.5 TFLs is tied for fifth in the conference. Tyler is perhaps the most dynamic defender on a veteran unit that struggled early in the season but has shown marked improvement of late.
BY THE NUMBERS
2.19. That's the increase in rushing yards per attempt for Florida State over what it mustered in 2011, by far the biggest increase in the nation. In fact, only eight other teams have upped their ground game performance by even half as much. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech ranks 66th nationally, allowing 4.20 yards per rush in 2012.
10.81. That's the number of additional passing attempts per sack Florida State has managed in 2012 over last season, which combined with the increased production from the running game tells a lot about how much the offensive line has improved. Only four other teams in the country have seen an increase of 10 attempts per sack and 1 yard per carry from their 2011 totals this season -- Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette and Northwestern.
1.50. That's Virginia Tech's turnover margin in its four wins this year, which have all come at home. That ranks second among ACC teams at home. The Hokies have just nine takeaways in those games, but have given away the football just three times. In their five losses, however, things are much worse. In those games, Virginia Tech has a minus-2.20 turnover margin, second-worst in the ACC. FSU's defense preached turnovers during the bye week, and getting a couple against Virginia Tech could decide the outcome.
0. Number of games any member of the current Florida State roster has played at Lane Stadium in their careers. Virginia Tech promises to be the most hostile environment Florida State has faced this season, which could be bad news given that no offense in the country has seen a bigger drop-off in production between home and road than the Seminoles. Since Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, this marks just its third meeting with FSU. The last came in the 2010 ACC championship game.
11. That's the number of points kicker Dustin Hopkins needs to overtake Boise State's Kyle Brotzman as the NCAA's all-time leading scorer. Of course, FSU is hoping those points will come one by one rather than from field goals, as the Seminoles are covering red-zone opportunities into touchdowns roughly half as often on the road as they do at home this season.