Hard to believe it’s already Week 4 of the college football season.

It’s even harder to believe that Clemson, the ACC’s preseason favorite, already finds itself in a must-win situation with 9 games still to play.

Sort of.

Thanks to the ACC’s new division-less format, a loss to Florida State on Saturday won’t eliminate the Tigers from a shot at getting to the conference championship game at the end of the season.

But an 0-2 league start with several other teams off to impressive starts and at least 1 of them already holding the advantage of a tiebreaker, the odds would be squarely against Dabo Swinney’s unranked team.

And forget about ending that 2-year College Football Playoff drought. Unless you’re Alabama or maybe another top SEC team, you’re not getting into the 4-team bracket with more than 1 loss.

So this is it. Dig in and hold your ground here or be resigned to playing out the string, winning your customary 10 games and having fun watching Dabo get showered with Pop Tarts after beating a 2nd-tier Big-12 team in Orlando on Dec. 28.

Saturday’s showdown at Death Valley was already the most highly-anticipated game on the ACC schedule before the season started. It only grew in importance, especially for Clemson, after the Tigers laid an egg at Duke on Labor Day Monday.

The fact that the Tigers are a home underdog for the first time in forever only adds to the intrigue. So does the fact that the matchup seems a lot more even than it did only a few days ago. 

The prevailing narrative that the Seminoles would waltz into town and steamroll Clemson the way they did LSU on opening night shifted dramatically after their suspect performance in a trap game at Boston College on Saturday and the Tigers’ encouraging progression against cupcakes Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic over the past 2 weeks.

There are plenty of other reasons it would be unwise to write Clemson off based solely on the results thus far.

For 1 thing, the Tigers are at home, where they’ve won 25 straight against ACC opponents and 10 of the past 11 meetings with FSU dating to 2003. They’ve also won 7 straight against the Seminoles.

As Swinney noted Sunday, things are never as good as they seem when they’re going good and never as bad as they seem when they’re not.

These teams are the embodiment of that thought process.

Take away those self-inflicted turnovers against the Blue Devils and we’re having a much different conversation leading into Saturday’s game. Clemson dominated the stat sheet in that 28-7 loss by passing and rushing for better than 200 yards each.

The Tigers had been 108-0-1 in their history when they’d reached such a threshold, 58-0 under Swinney. The only reason they didn’t win again was their self-inflicted mistakes and an inability to turn red-zone opportunities into points.

While Clemson isn’t nearly as bad as the team some have made it out to be, FSU might not be quite the juggernaut its press clippings have built it up to be. The Seminoles showed some warts in their closer-than-expected 31-29 win at BC.

Among the most glaring were their slow start in a noon game – the same kickoff time as Saturday – their loss of focus with an opportunity to put the game away early in the 2nd half and most importantly, their difficulty defending a mobile quarterback and preventing big plays.

The latter is a soft spot Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik has the skill set to exploit.

“Being able to use my legs when I can … just helps keep things rolling,” he said during a media availability on Monday.

As much as that running ability will help the young quarterback, Klubnik’s inexperience and decision-making in the passing game could have the opposite impact against an aggressive, veteran defense such as the 1 he’ll face Saturday.

How he handles the pressure – both the physical kind handed out by Seminole pass rushers Jared Verse, Braden Fiske and others, along with the mental stress of playing in such an important game – will have a profound impact on the outcome.

It won’t be the only determining factor.

The defense will also have its hands full against a versatile FSU offense, especially if junior defensive back Andrew Mukuba is still sidelined by injury and unable to help defend against FSU’s explosive receiving trio of Johnny Wilson, Keon Coleman and tight end Jaheim Bell.

And there are concerns surrounding the kicking game, which has been so erratic through the first 3 games that Swinney has hinted at replacing freshman Robert Gunn III with punter Aiden Swanson.

Of even greater concern is the Tigers’ penchant for turning the ball over. They’ve already done it 6 times on 4 fumbles and 2 interceptions.

“We have no chance against Florida State if we don’t win the turnover margin. Zero chance,” Swinney said, adding that the Seminoles are the biggest challenge his team has faced to date. “We can barely beat anybody when we do that.”

Duke is Exhibit A.

Because of that loss, Clemson’s hopes for going undefeated are gone. Now 2 other goals are on the line. When it comes to winning the ACC and getting into the Playoff, there’s little to no margin for error.

The Tigers might still have 8 games left to play after Saturday. But they won’t mean nearly as much if they don’t win this one.