NEXT GAME

Who: South Carolina State at Clemson

When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson

TV: Fox Sports Carolinas

CLEMSON — There’s no sidestepping or downplaying the expectations now.

By virtue of what many consider the most impressive victory of college football’s opening week, Clemson cut its preseason ranking in half, soaring from No. 8 to No. 4 in the Associated Press college football poll and roaring squarely into the early stages of the national championship conversation.

Only defending national champion Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon remain in Clemson’s way.

It is the first time the Tigers have found themselves in the front four in Tajh Boyd’s lifetime — going back to Sept. 17, 1988, when the third-ranked Tigers were bounced 24-21 at home by Florida State (the Seminoles eventually finished 11-1 and ranked third themselves in the postseason.)

Clemson leapfrogged Texas A&M, South Carolina, Georgia and Stanford from the preseason poll after beating then-No. 5 Georgia 38-35 in Death Valley on national television, dropping the reigning SEC East champion Bulldogs to No. 11.

Paired with their Chick-fil-A Bowl rally to knock off No. 9 LSU last Dec. 3, the Tigers became the first non-SEC team in college football history to win consecutive games against top 10 SEC opponents.

And as of Tuesday, the only SEC member ranked above Clemson is the one that’s won three national championships in four years.

Of course, the rankings are subject to change even by no wrongdoing.

No. 5 Stanford, which hasn’t yet played a game, could hop over Clemson with its own head-turning success. No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida State also lurk — both are ahead on the Tigers’ schedule down the road.

But for now, the Tigers are the toast of the nation. Out of 60 ballots, one even voted Clemson No. 1.

Doug Lesmerises, who covers Ohio State for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, explained his reason for putting Clemson at the top of his ballot. The specific format for voting he’s used since 2009 is to judge based on immediate performance, not past reputation nor future prognostications.

“They had the best win. It’s not too much more complicated,” Lesmerises told The Post and Courier on Tuesday. “I think if you ask every other voter in both polls, they would say the same thing; they just didn’t decide to take that information and use it to make Clemson No. 1.”

Lesmerises said starting his poll with Clemson was “obvious,” while giving LSU the No. 2 spot over Alabama was a little trickier. His plan all along was to vote the Georgia- Clemson winner No. 1.

“If Alabama had won 80-0 against a Virginia Tech team that’s decent, maybe it would have been more difficult,” Lesmerises said. (The Crimson Tide won, 35-10.) “I ignore the name on their jersey, I absolutely ignore their ranking the week before, especially with the preseason poll, which is just a guess.

“Given the way it played out, it was easy for me.”

Clemson last received a first-place vote in the preseason of 1991.

The AP votes were released in the middle of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s weekly press conference. Customarily, he deferred significance toward the rankings until November.

“If we’re No. 4 going into the ACC championship game, hey man, that’s great,” Swinney said. “Maybe that game gives us a chance to get into the final game. Then it matters.”

“But right now, we’ve just played one game. That’s all. We’re 1-0. I mean, I appreciate people recognizing potential, because we do have good potential. We have a chance to be a really good football team.”

This is the second straight year Clemson opened the season by thwarting an SEC opponent. The Tigers survived a sloppy battle with Auburn for a 26-19 win in last year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.

“We are night and day — light years ahead — after one ballgame this year than we were after one ballgame last year,” Swinney said. “I mean, it’s really not even close. We are much, much, much better this time this year than we were this time last year.”

The 2012 Tigers finished 11-2, only losing to eventual top-10 inhabitants Florida State and South Carolina.

“Here’s the difference: that team last year was pretty good, now. They won 11 games and did some great things,” Swinney said. “But that team got better and better and better all throughout the year. The challenge to this year’s team is, will you improve? Will you stay focused? Will you stay committed to the formula and to our standard?

“If this team will do that, then we’ve got a chance to have a special year.”

From the SEC, the AP poll was marked by Alabama at the top, the No. 6 Gamecocks, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 9 LSU, No. 11 Georgia and No. 12 Florida. From the ACC, Florida State was welcomed to the top 10.

In the USA Today coaches poll, Clemson checked in at No. 5 — idle Stanford was given the benefit of the doubt for now at No. 4. South Carolina is sixth in both polls.