- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- After the buzz of Florida State's win over Miami died down, talk rightfully turned to the showdown of division leaders. That's right. Duke comes to Tallahassee for what could be an ACC title game preview.
Amid talk of Duke's surprising, almost fairytale, resurgence this season, FSU quarterback EJ Manuel was asked whether he'd been recruited by the Blue Devils when he was a high school star in Virginia.
"That was my first offer," Manuel said. "Just the fact that I knew I had a place to go no matter what happened after that point meant a lot."
This is the beauty of ACC football. It's the only environment where Duke is viewed as a safety school.
And so it goes this week at Florida State, where the Seminoles insist they're taking the suddenly successful Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1 ACC) seriously, even if the compliments all seem to be tinged with a not-so-subtle backhanded flair.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes assured reporters he wouldn't overlook Duke. After all, he said, he'd "heard they only lost a couple games."
Fellow cornerback Nick Waisome suggested the Blue Devils were a legitimate challenge before admitting he wasn't sure he had been born yet the last time Duke finished the season with a winning record.
Linebacker Telvin Smith said he hadn't seen much of the Blue Devils this season, but he caught the first half of Duke's game against Virginia Tech a few weeks ago and came away impressed. He didn't clarify whether he'd continued watching as the Hokies scored 41 unanswered points after Duke built a 20-0 lead.
Even FSU coach Jimbo Fisher stumbled into the mixed messages when talking about Duke's All-ACC receiver Conner Vernon, a senior on the verge of breaking the conference's career receiving record held by FSU legend Peter Warrick.
"He's much quicker and faster than people think," Fisher said before admitting he only vaguely remembered Vernon as a prospect and knew of few coaches who had been eager to recruit him.
So what's the real story of this game?
"Nothing surprises me," Fisher said. "In college football, nothing's predictable. Everybody's got a chance."
If that doesn't exactly clear things up, the record books tell a vivid story.
Florida State is 17-0 against Duke. In 14 of those 17 games, FSU has scored at least 44 points. No final score has been closer than 19 points. Only twice has Duke been within two touchdowns at halftime.
Meanwhile, Duke has won just one game against a ranked opponent in the last 40 years. That lone victory came in 1994, the last time the Blue Devils were bowl eligible before this season. Duke came to Tallahassee that year sporting a sterling 7-0 record. Florida State promptly demolished the Blue Devils 59-20.
That's ancient history, though. This year, Duke is in control of its destiny in the Coastal Division, riding high atop the standings and sporting talent that actually offers a few glimmers of hope. At least that's what Florida State is trying to say.
"You can't overlook Duke at all," Waisome said. "They're 6-2, so they're doing really well this year. We've got to definitely play them up."
Indeed, Duke isn't interested in rehashing history this week. David Cutcliffe's crew wants to rewrite it.
For inspiration, the Blue Devils need not look far. On Sept. 29, Duke beat Wake Forest for the first time since 1999 after backup quarterback Anthony Boone ignited a fourth-quarter rally. Just last week, Duke toppled rival North Carolina for the first time since 2003 on a touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder with just 13 seconds left in the game.
"We've had two [wins] this year that have stopped streaks," Cutcliffe said. "Those are big deals. Those are rewarding times that you can use to move forward. Hopefully everyone will. You like it when you taste it, but it's going to get harder before it gets easier. That's what you have to understand about it."
It's a nice story, and Florida State is happy to play along as it preps for Saturday. On game day, however, the task gets tougher for the Blue Devils, and reality sets in.
Cutcliffe joked this week that the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel offered the type of size and athleticism he'd only dreamed of recruiting to Duke -- at defensive end.
Across the board, Florida State is bigger, faster, stronger and more talented. These are the facts, no matter how rejuvenated Duke's program is this season.
"We're playing the most physical team that we've seen," Cutcliffe said. "We're playing the fastest team that we've seen, if that tells you anything."
However, this isn't your grandfather's Duke team -- or, for that matter, your slightly older brother's. This is the new-look Duke, an upstart band of experienced and underrated talent ready to slay Goliath.
"They look a lot more athletic now," Manuel said. "They don't look like the Duke of old. We are going to have to be prepared for these guys. It is going to be a big game just like it was last year."
Of course, last year Manuel completed three passes of 50 yards or more in the first quarter, and Florida State won 41-16.
He didn't mention that part of the story.
These aren't your father's or even your older brother's Blue Devils. Duke will face Florida State in a surprising showdown of ACC division leaders.