RALEIGH, N.C.-- Tom O'Brien often tells his North Carolina State players that they should treat every game like a title is on the line. This time, they believe him.
Then again, the Wolfpack hardly need anyone to explain just how high the stakes are for Thursday night's visit from No. 16 Florida State.
"As coach always says, every game's the ACC championship game. But this one actually is, kind of," linebacker Audie Cole said. "He always says it and it doesn't always register. But this one, I think everyone knows, this is maybe the most important game we've played in a while. If we win, we've got momentum and we keep going. But if we lose, it kind of takes us out of the running to go to" the ACC title game.
N.C. State has a good reason to build up this game as the biggest of O'Brien's four seasons in Raleigh. The winner seizes control of the ACC's Atlantic Division. The Seminoles (6-1, 4-0) are the only team in the division unbeaten in league play, with the Wolfpack (5-2, 2-1) right behind them with one-loss Maryland still ahead for both teams.
That the notoriously slow-starting Wolfpack enter the final week of October with a legitimate chance to win the division and reach the Dec. 4 league championship game shows how far they've come. In each of the last three seasons, N.C. State had to overcome lengthy midseason losing streaks just to make any kind of push for a winning season.
"Generally at this point, we're fighting -- we're so far behind the curve because of the (injury) situations we've faced the last two years," O'Brien said. "These kids have done a great job putting themselves in this situation. ... It's the second half of the year, and we're in a position to make a run at this thing. You can't ask for anything more out of this football team except to show up ... and play a great football game."
While N.C. State appears to be pouring all of its emotional energy into this matchup, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder seems to favor the opposite approach.
"Every game for the rest of the year is going to be a tough game," Ponder said. "We know (N.C. State), it's another ACC game, an intradivisional game, that's necessary to win. We take that approach to everything. We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We know it's going to be a tough challenge."
According to the stat sheets, this matchup should be a tight one, with both teams in the ACC's top three in scoring offense and total offense.
Florida State, the highest-ranked ACC team, has won five straight since a humbling loss at Oklahoma, and ranks third in the league in rushing. Behind dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson -- whom Ponder called "the best quarterback in the ACC right now and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation" -- N.C. State leads the league in passing.
"Say you had 60 plays and you played 57 great plays," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Those three plays you didn't, he could be the guy that changes the game. You have to be on your toes at all times."
Where the teams seem to differ is on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
While the Wolfpack rank in the middle of the league's pack in the four main stat categories, the Seminoles might have the best defense in the ACC, ranking in the top two in points allowed, total yards allowed and defending the run. They also lead the nation in sacks.
"I think the key is just slowing down the game. Don't make it too fast for you," Wilson said. "Obviously, it's going to start off fast, it's going to continue to be fast, but there's going to be highs and lows throughout the game, and we ... have to try to weather the storm and just continue to push."
For the first time since Florida State joined the ACC in 1992, Chuck Amato won't be involved on either sideline in this rivalry. The former N.C. State linebacker and longtime Seminoles assistant coached the Wolfpack from 2000-06 before returning to Tallahassee for three seasons. He was not retained when Fisher took over for the retired Bobby Bowden, and is fighting cancer on his tonsil.
Amato's strong ties to both programs made this one of the ACC's must-see rivalries. Florida State has won three straight meetings, though eight of the last nine games have been decided by 10 or fewer points.
And with so much more on the line this year, nobody's expecting a blowout either way.
"This, obviously, is a big, big game for our bracket of the conference going forward," O'Brien said. "They can see the prize and understand how important things are as we go forward."