RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Clemson has a No. 3 national ranking and clear front-runner status in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Saturday's trip to North Carolina State starts a stretch that will determine whether the Tigers earn that expected ticket to the league title game and stay in the chase for the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers (7-0, 4-0 ACC) were the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Division followed by the ACC title. They visit Raleigh to face a Wolfpack team that entered the season aiming to contend in the Atlantic, followed by a home game with division opponent and 17th-ranked Florida State in a two-week window that could all but wrap up the division race.
''Our focus is to win the division and if we're going to win the division, we have to beat the teams in our division,'' coach Dabo Swinney said. ''We're just going to do what we do. We don't vary from our formula.''
The Tigers have certainly had an eventful past two trips to visit the Wolfpack (5-2, 1-2).
In 2011, Clemson came in with a top-10 ranking and left with a 37-13 loss. Two years ago, Clemson - again ranked No. 3 - needed an out-of-bounds call to finally get second-half control in a 26-14 win.
Asked if he would discuss the 2011 debacle with his team, Swinney called it ''irrelevant.''
North Carolina State started 4-0 against a soft nonconference schedule, lost two straight ACC games then regrouped by winning last week at Wake Forest to snap a six-game losing skid in Winston-Salem. N.C. State boasts an experienced quarterback in Jacoby Brissett and one of the country's most productive running backs in Matt Dayes as it chases a second straight bowl bid.
''It's definitely a big opportunity for our program and the things we've been able to do, like ending the streak against Wake Forest,'' cornerback Jack Tocho said. ''This is another accolade we can put on our journey through the season.''
Here are things to know about Saturday's Clemson-North Carolina State game:
FIRST STARTS: Clemson led Miami 42-0 at the half of its 58-0 blowout last week, the latest fast start for a team that has outscored opponents 179-33 in the first half this season. "They come prepared. They're ready to play,'' co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. ''They understand the importance of getting off to a fast start.''
DAYES' RUNS: Dayes ranks in the top 25 nationally with 739 yards rushing and is seventh nationally with a league-best 12 touchdowns. The Wolfpack could use a good performance from him to keep the Deshaun Watson-led offense on the sideline.
PASS RUSH: North Carolina State ranks tied for third in the ACC with 19 sacks, with 6.5 coming from graduate defensive end Mike Rose. Clemson has allowed 10 sacks, fourth most in the league. Getting pressure on Watson will be huge for the Wolfpack.
STREAKY TIGERS: Clemson has a couple of notable streaks alive. The Tigers have won 10 straight games for the first time in roughly three decades. Clemson also carries a 35-game win streak over unranked opponents in the AP poll, the last lost coming to the Wolfpack in 2011.
SIGNATURE WIN? N.C. State third-year coach Dave Doeren's best win was a rout at rival North Carolina to close the regular season last year. While Wolfpack fans love to hate the Tar Heels, Saturday marks the chance for a program-building victory in front of a rowdy home crowd. ''This environment is what you sign up for as a player and a coach,'' he said.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org .