TALLAHASSEE, Fla. EJ Manuel was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the class of 2008, so the options were plentiful.
He grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., but schools like Virginia Tech (5.5 hours) and Virginia (three hours) were a long way from home. Manuel visited Blacksburg, Va., for a football camp during his sophomore year, but when Tyrod Taylor committed to the Hokies in 2007 it became clear that Manuel would go elsewhere.
So Manuel chose Florida State in the summer before his senior season, took just one unofficial visit and didn't waver. Virginia Tech and Virginia offered him scholarships, but Manuel felt comfortable with Florida State over the in-state schools and offers from programs like LSU, Alabama, Oregon and Tennessee.
"They both appealed to me," Manuel said of Virginia Tech and Virginia. "But at the time I was getting offers and interest from other schools. (Tyrod) helped my decision to move on from Virginia Tech."
And now Manuel will return to his home state, albeit a long drive from his hometown, on Thursday night when Florida State (8-1, 5-1 ACC) faces Virginia Tech (4-5, 2-3). He's expecting a large group of family and friends to make the trip from Virginia Beach, but for the most part the crowd of 65,000 will be cheering for the Hokies.
"They're not going to like me very much, but that's fine," Manuel said. "We just have to go out there and play."
Manuel has played quite well in his time at Florida State. He's 21-5 as a starter. He's completed 67.3 percent of his passes five percentage points better than Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, who is Florida State's current leader.
He's sixth on the school's career passing yards list (6,659), just 213 shy of the quarterback he filled in for so many times: Christian Ponder. And Manuel is sixth on the all-time completions list (498), just 31 shy of Danny Kanell.
While the loss to NC State took Florida State out of the national title picture and removed Manuel from the Heisman picture this season has been his best. Manuel has thrown for 2,315 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions (a few of which have been in and out of the hands of receivers). He is completing 70 percent of his passes, tops in the ACC.
"The guy is playing super football," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
One thing Manuel has never done? Beat a Virginia team as Florida State's starter. Manuel and the Seminoles lost to the Cavaliers 14-13 in 2011, and Manuel was an emergency starter for Ponder, who had an injured elbow, in the 2010 ACC Championship game, when Florida State fell 44-33 to the Hokies.
"I don't think I knew I was going to start the game until the game started," said Manuel, who still completed 23 for 31 passes for 288 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. "The whole week of practice, (I was) preparing like I was going to start. We came up short. I know those guys respect us. We respect them, too."
The respect is mutual. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has watched Manuel play for years. And Beamer knows that the Manuel his team will face on Thursday is far different from who he saw two years ago.
"Experience is a wonderful thing," Beamer said. "He's been around. He's played a lot."
His play, and his leadership, has put the Seminoles in this position: If the Seminoles defeat Virginia Tech and then win the following week at Maryland, Florida State will win the Atlantic Division and play in the ACC Championship game.
Virginia Tech is going in the other direction, struggling while losing four of its past five games. The Hokies are allowing 32.6 points per game in that span.
And Virginia Tech will face quite a challenge from Manuel & Co. Few teams move the ball up and down the field with balance like Florida State, which is third in scoring (44.7 points) and seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total yards (524 per game).
"They're about as good as it gets in college football," Beamer said.
In many ways it would appear to be a mismatch. Still, of anyone on Florida State's roster, Manuel knows the level of talent that Virginia Tech has. And he relishes the opportunity that he has Thursday night.
"That's what you want," Manuel said. "Growing up, playing in those type of games. The Florida State-Virginia Tech games."