CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson's offensive line has conquered challenges all season. Its final one - and perhaps biggest - will come in the national championship game against Alabama's dominating defense.
''We've always been a question mark around here,'' Tigers center Jay Guillermo said.
There certainly will be more questions about the line and the top-ranked Tigers (14-0) leading up to their matchup on Jan. 11 in Arizona with the powerful Crimson Tide (13-1), which completely shut down Big Ten champion Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl last Thursday night.
No. 2 Alabama held the Spartans to a season-low 239 yards as linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end Jonathan Allen had their way Michigan State's offensive line, combining for four sacks and six tackles for loss.
The Clemson offensive line - none who were starters before this year - know they have to fare better, even if there are questions whether they actually can.
''People doubt us all the time,'' Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. ''Nobody believes in this team except these guys.''
The Tigers' unit is a group that early on didn't look like it could anchor a national championship run.
Of the two returning starters from last season, center Ryan Norton was slowed by an injury and tackle Isaiah Battle left the team for the NFL supplemental draft in the summer.
Clemson had to rely on Guillermo, a junior who had given up football last season because of personal issues, to snap the ball to quarterback Deshaun Watson and a talented, yet at that time, unproven true freshman Mitch Hyatt to protect Watson's blindside.
They managed to answer the challenges 14 straight times.
The group, which also includes guards Eric Mac Lain and Tyrone Crowder and right tackle Joe Gore, gradually gelled and became the engine that drives Clemson's relentless offense.
Watson and tailback Wayne Gallman surpassed 100 yards on the ground in the 37-17 win over Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl and the Tigers finished with 312 yards rushing,
The line helped Watson become Clemson's single-season total yardage leader (4,731) and Gallman gain the most rushing yards (1,482) in school history.
All five of members of the offensive line received honors on one of the three all-Atlantic Coast Conference postseason teams.
''It's been a long journey,'' said Mac Lain, the former tight end who had made only one start before this season.
Watson, who was coming off a knee injury this offseason, remembers the bond he saw growing among the linemen.
''It was just really during summer workouts, all the stuff they did,'' Watson said. ''Just hanging out. You could see the relationship building.''
Once the season began, things did not come so quickly.
The Clemson offense was held to 20 points, its lowest total all year, against Louisville in September then 296 yards, also a season low, a game later against Notre Dame.
But the linemen knew they were close to putting things together.
Clemson has had 10 straight games of 500 yards or more on offense, powering to an undefeated season, an ACC title and the chance to try for the program's first national title since 1981.
''We really had a mentality here of wanting to prove people wrong,'' Guillermo said.
Clemson will do that in a big way if it can hold off the Crimson Tide defense, which limited Michigan State to 29 yards rushing.
Alabama's Allen said the Crimson Tide concentrates on taking away the run so they can get after the quarterback.
''If you stop the run, you get rewarded with pass rushing,'' said Allen, who had two sacks against the Spartans. ''That's just our mentality.''
If Alabama shuts down Clemson's run game, it will go a long way in helping Alabama win its fourth national championship in seven years. The Tigers, however, believe they can slow down the Crimson Tide so Watson and Gallman can make the plays they've made all season.
''We know we're only going to go as far as our offensive line takes us,'' Guillermo said. ''It starts with us putting the game on our back. That's what we want to do.''