CLEMSON - Much of Clemson's defensive emergence is located in opposing teams' backfields, where Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and the Tigers' front seven lived for much of the year.
Clemson leads the country with 9.42 tackles for loss per game, and it's not particularly close - Tulane is next up at 8.54, and only four other teams nationally average at least eight negative plays on defense.
Then supplement Clemson's eighth-rated third-down conversion defense (31.8 percent for opponents), and that's why the Tigers have survived sporadic big plays to morph into a top-25 total defense.
Individual stars like Beasley (19 TFLs, 12 sacks, four forced fumbles), Jarrett (10 TFLs, 13 quarterback pressures) and Anthony (13.5 TFLs, four pass-breakups) have led the way.
"Winning at the point of attack, trying to stop the run, and being Clemson. That's what we do, we get tackles for loss," said defensive end Corey Crawford (9.5 TFLs, 16 pressures.) "If we prepare for them and find out what they're going to do, we'll have the same results we've been having."
It won't be that simple in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, though, which presents a matchup problem. The Buckeyes are fifth-best in tackles for loss allowed (3.54 per game); only Georgia joins OSU as Clemson opponents this year in the top 25 in that department.
In true Big Ten fashion, the Buckeyes have a big, beefy offensive line, bookended by first-team all-conference left tackle Jack Mewhort (6-6, 308) and sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker (6-7, 315.)
OSU's interior is also huge: guards Andrew Norwell (6-6, 316) and Marcus Hall (6-5, 315) and first-team all-Big Ten center Corey Linsley (6-3, 297).
"They're really good up front," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "Very physical, and they've got athletic ability to handle movement and change of direction. You just don't see a ton of guys coming free."
It's a disturbing trend, considering Clemson's track record.
Ohio State's average offensive lineman weight, 310.2 pounds per man, is the third-heaviest Clemson has faced this year, supplanting Wake Forest's 307.0 and North Carolina State's 306.2.
The only two weightier lines: South Carolina 322.4 pounds per lineman, Florida State 317.4 pounds per lineman.
Obviously, those were the Tigers' only losses, and while Clemson had double-digit tackles for a loss in eight of its 12 games, it had just six against the Seminoles and seven at the Gamecocks.
Now come the Buckeyes, bringing 6-2, 215-pound quarterback Braxton Miller, bruising tailback Carlos Hyde, and the only set of four offensive linemen 6-5 or taller the Tigers have seen all year who sprung the Buckeyes' No. 3 rushing attack.
"It's a game where you have to be physical with their O-line," Anthony said. "They got a great O-Line, and they're going to come at us. They want to run the ball 40-50 times a game, and we have to be ready."
Hyde (6-foot, 235 pounds) is the heaviest running back to face Clemson this season, and 6-1, 232-pound Todd Gurley did run wild on Aug. 31 (12 carries, 154 yards, 2 TDs.) But the Tigers held their own against Boston College's Heisman finalist Andre Williams (6-0, 227 pounds; 24 rushes, 70 yards) and USC's Mike Davis (5-9, 215; 15 rushes, 22 yards, TD.)
"Same song, different day. We went against a whole bunch of good running backs this year: Gurley, Williams, Davis, now Hyde," Jarrett said. "I know he's a great player. I honestly don't think it's going to be that much different. But we're still going to prepare for going against one of the best running backs in the country."
How do you stop a 235-pound locomotive out of the backfield?
"Hit him and wrap up. Can't hit him with one shoulder, can't try to arm-tackle him," Crawford said.
"He's not coming down off no arm tackles. So we have to be physical with him, hit him and wrap up."
Miller isn't quite as dynamic as former Florida star Tim Tebow, but he's a faster runner in open speed; Urban Meyer has weaved magic with both dual-threat quarterbacks half a decade apart.
"It's your typical spread," Venables said. "They try to attack your edges, attack you up the middle, and try to take the top off all those different runs. They've got the jet sweeps and the powers and the zone and reverses, and the playactions off all those. They're good at everything they do."