FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Of all the stats and figures at our disposal to identify Clemson football, this one stands above the rest.
THE ORANGE BOWL
Who: No. 12 Clemson vs. No. 7 Ohio State
Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
When: Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Records: Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC); Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
TV announcers: Joe Tessitore, Matt Millen, Maria Taylor
Radio announcers: Sean McDonough, Chris Spielman, Shannon Spake
Current point spread: Ohio State by
It's not just turnovers, you know. It goes deeper than that.
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In 10 victories this season, Clemson allowed 171 points, but only 16 of those were in response to the Tigers' 12 turnovers in those games.
In two defeats, Clemson allowed 82 points, and an incredible 45 of those came off the Tigers' 10 turnovers.
"That ball is 12 ounces of gold, man," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "When you put it on the ground, it affects everything: momentum, field position, and it's sometimes very hard to overcome."
It's not just turnovers. It's what happens after them.
"If we wouldn't give up the turnovers," senior running back Roderick McDowell said, "we'd probably be playing in the national championship or something."
This season's final destination is not the national championship, but it's something. Another one of those program-defining moments beckons the No. 12-ranked Tigers as they get a chance to whack No. 7 Ohio State in the Orange Bowl on Friday at Sun Life Stadium in south Florida.
It would be too simple to say Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC) wins if it protects the football and loses if it doesn't. Recent history suggests that's not far off.
"When we win the turnover margin, we win. That's just a fact," Swinney said. "That's what history says for our guys, because we're good enough. We've proven we're not good enough to beat good teams when we turn it over. That has to be a key thing we've got to get done to have a chance to beat these guys."
Again, the simple method is to point to Clemson's four mistakes against Florida State or six miscues at South Carolina. But, in a 2012 game at Duke, Clemson turned it over four times. The Blue Devils went 0-for-4 trying to capitalize.
On Aug. 31, the Tigers had just one turnover, when Sammy Watkins fumbled a punt that could have given Georgia a serious surge. What happened? On the very next play, defensive end Corey Crawford dropped back into coverage and picked off Aaron Murray, re-seizing the momentum.
"That's a great example of that. That's what you do, you respond," Swinney said. "When you have a mistake, you've got to make it up somewhere."
However, the No. 1 Seminoles and No. 9 Gamecocks - a combined 24-2 this season - tallied six touchdowns and a field goal on 10 opportunities following Clemson coughups. Failure to respond is why the Tigers lost those big games.
"We can live with punting the ball, and kicking a field goal all game," Watkins said. "That's the thing we messed up on. We had too many turnovers in critical situations."
It's a fickle subject, because telling players not to turn the ball over creates the dreaded virus of overthinking.
"You can't go out there and say, 'just don't turn the ball over' or you're probably going to turn the ball over," quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "That's actually happened before; you say don't fumble, and then you fumble the snap."
Of course, the Clemson defense plays a role, too. It only generated one turnover in the two defeats, a Bashaud Breeland interception of Florida State's Jameis Winston.
"We've got to be in the right place," cornerback Darius Robinson said. "If something falls to where we do give up a turnover, we've got to get one."
Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) is one of the most careful offenses in the country, with just 15 fumbles or interceptions - allowing five touchdowns off those 15 turnovers - in 13 games.
"That's one of our core values," Buckeyes tailback Carlos Hyde said. "As a running back, it's ball security. Basically, if you can't protect the ball, you can't play. So that's huge."
Arduous offseason methods are famous at Ohio State, all with the intention of strengthening mental toughness when things go wrong on gameday.
"That teaches them to deal with those difficult situations you get thrust into," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said. "If you have a turnover here, let's go out and play hard. Our whole program is built on training them how to respond to adverse events that take place."
No guarantees follow the Tigers out the tunnel onto the national stage Friday night. But they know they give themselves an undeniably better chance at adding Ohio State to the list of powerhouse programs they've beaten lately by not beating themselves.
As the proprietor of protecting those 12 ounces of gold, Boyd knows the turnover troubles fall squarely on his shoulders.
"I don't think there's any team that's better than us. I can say that," Boyd said. "We can win any game in the country. But that's only if we do what we're supposed to do.
"Every loss we had, it's been self-destruction. When we don't turn the ball over, we win every game that we play."
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