Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Picks Dec. 23-24

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Saturday, December 23




Birmingham Bowl


Texas Tech (6-6) vs. South Florida (9-2)

Noon, ESPN

Legion Field

Birmingham, Alabama


South Florida -2.5 vs. Texas Tech


Straight Up:

Texas Tech Red Raiders logo

Against the Spread:

Texas Tech Red Raiders logo


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: "When the spread opened at -2.5 we saw some big, significant bets on South Florida. That moved the line to 3. But as the game approaches we are getting a lot of buy back on the dog."



USF heads to the Birmingham Bowl for the second straight year. Much has changed within the program since last year's game. In the 2016 rendition, USF was playing under interim HC T.J. Weist, who took over after Willie Taggart bolted for Oregon.

Across the field was 6-6 South Carolina, playing in its first bowl game under HC Will Muschamp. The 10-2 Bulls were installed as 10.5-point favorites, and if memory serves, the public was all over them. USF coughed up an 18-point second half lead and the game went to overtime. The Bulls won it on Quinton Flowers' 25-yard touchdown pass to Elkanah Dillion (and a subsequent stop of South Carolina's offense).

Following a whirlwind year, the Bulls enter a sort of "Twilight Zone: Birmingham Bowl" episode. USF has essentially the same record as it did last time (the UMass game in October, a sure win, was canceled due to hurricane complications), and it's still led by QB Flowers.

USF is also playing another uninspiring 6-6 Power 5 opponent who narrowly achieved bowl eligibility. In Texas Tech's case, it required upsetting Texas in Austin in the regular season finale.

While USF may look like a similar team in Charlie Strong’s first year, they’ve undergone subtle but significant changes. And this year’s opponent is the anti-South Carolina, a pass-happy group with a shoddy defense.


Last season, South Florida was as one-dimensionally lopsided towards one side of the ball as any FBS team outside of Texas Tech (more on that later). The No. 8 S&P+ offense was a juggernaut, ranking No. 4 with 43.8 points per game. The No. 110 S&P+ defense was abominable, ranking No. 92 with 31.6 ppg allowed.  

The offense regressed to No. 31 S&P+ this fall (No. 18 with 38.3 ppg), but the team remained a similar quality because Strong and crew did an astonishing turnaround job with the No. 27 S&P+ defense (No. 33 with 22.5 ppg allowed).

Last year, USF won only three games when it failed to score at least 45 points (they got to 35 in two, and 42 in the other). This year, USF scored less than 45 points in seven of its nine wins. The Bulls only topped 47 points once this year (the 61-31 win over hapless ECU), something they did five times in 2016.

We could run through a similar exercise with points allowed, but you get the idea: The huge gains made on defense were largely nullified by the regression of the offense.

Last year, USF finished No. 1 in offensive explosion and points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, per S&P+. This year’s team is still explosive (No. 16), just not near as flammable. But the real reason for the regression can be found in the drop-off in points scored once past mid-field and the startling drop-off in efficiency (No. 25 to No. 81).

Because of its efficiency issues, S&P+ ranks both USF’s passing and running offense below No. 100 overall. While those numbers clearly don’t do the offense justice, they are a good barometer for how much you can rely on the attack in any given down and distance.

Former Minnesota Vikings backup running back Leroy Hoard reportedly once told one of his coaches: "Coach, if you need one yard, I'll get you three yards. If you need five yards, I'll get you three yards." If USF’s offense repurposed that quote, it would say this: “Coach, if you need one yard, I'll sometimes get you negative-two yards and I’ll sometimes get you 35 yards. If you need five yards, I'll sometimes throw an interception and I’ll sometimes score a touchdown."

USF misses RB Marlon Mack and WR Rodney Adams, of course. Both are now playing on Sundays. Coupled with the regression of Flowers’ numbers across the board, and you get an idea of where the team’s yards disappeared to.

But we aren’t going to blame Flowers for this. The 2017 offensive line has been a big problem, regressing from No. 25 to No. 115 in S&P+ Adjusted Line Yards and No. 35 to No. 95 in S&P+ Adjusted Sack Rate.

The offensive dropoff could come into play here, because Texas Tech would like for this to turn into the type of shootout they’re usually involved with in bowl games. But like USF, Tech made big defensive gains this fall while dropping off a bit offensively.

Pat Mahomes’ last Tech bunch finished with the No. 6 S&P+ offense and the No. 125 S&P+ defense. We were off on Tech this summer, as we thought the team would finish even worse than last year’s 5-7 showing without their star quarterback. Instead, the unexpected defensive renaissance led to a one-game improvement and a postseason trip. The Red Raiders improved from the No. 125 S&P+ defense in 2016 to No. 82 this year, slashing about 12 points per game allowed off their ledger.

QB Nic Shimonek had some ups-and-downs (including being benched to begin the Texas game), but he finished with solid numbers (3,547 yards passing on 68-percent completions with a 30/8 TD/INT ratio). His favorite weapon is an electric playmaker that came on so strongly last season that he forced former No. 1 WR Jonathan Giles to transfer. Keke Coutee’s encore included a sizzling 82-1242-9 line on 107 targets.

A part of the defensive improvements for both teams can be attributed to a newfound skill in creating turnovers. Tech was especially good at this, refashioning themselves as a ball-attacking group that finished tied for No. 6 in the FBS with 27 turnovers forced (USF ranked No. 30 with 22). Tech’s offense turned it over a bit more than USF’s, which is why the school’s turnover margin is nearly identical (Tech tied for No. 10 with +11, USF finished No. 13 with +10).

In the final analysis, we just trust Tech more, in no small part because they’re accustomed to playing good teams. The Red Raiders faced Phil Steele’s No. 14 schedule and beat three bowl teams in Arizona State, Houston and Texas. The latter two wins came on the road. Interestingly, Tech was better away from Lubbock (4-2) than it was at home (2-4) this fall.

USF faced Steele’s No. 119 schedule. It beat only one bowl team, Temple (No. 86 S&P+), one of the worst teams in this year’s field. The Bulls beat only one other team inside the S&P+ top-100. For what it’s worth, USF also lost by four at home to like-opponent Houston.

USF’s resume gives pause, as does its maddening propensity to shoot itself in the foot. The Bulls rank No. 129 (out of 130) in the nation in penalties (almost 85 yards per game squandered by flags).

We also give Tech the motivation edge heading in. After huge preseason expectations, USF is returning to the same bowl as last season after blowing a chance to upset UCF in the regular season finale. Tech, meanwhile, should be ready to go in its return to the postseason after a one-year layoff.

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl


San Diego State (10-2) vs. Army (9-3)

3:30 p.m., ESPN

Amon G. Carter Stadium

Fort Worth, Texas

San Diego State -6.5 vs. Army



Straight Up:

San Diego St. Aztecs logo

Against the Spread:

San Diego St. Aztecs logo


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: "This spread is holding tight at a touchdown. It's a typical situation we see where 75% of the public money is on the favorite and 75% of the sharp money is on the underdog."



Nothing would make us happier than seeing Army win its second consecutive bowl game. The odds of that happening are not good. This is a really, really poor matchup for the Black Knights.

Both teams are elite-plus in rushing. Army boasts the nation’s No. 1 ground offense with 355 rushing yards per game. San Diego State, meanwhile, finished No. 12 on the ground behind RB Rashaad Penny, the No. 1 rusher in the country with 2,027 yards (and 19 touchdowns on 7.4 YPC with an 18-142-2 receiving line).

The similarities end there.

Army comes in off a thrilling victory over archrival Navy. Prior to that, they had a six-game winning streak snapped in a three-point road loss to North Texas. Outside of that, Army only lost to Ohio State (duh) and Tulane (oops).

Army’s triple-option attack has become a bear to slow down. It rarely busts off huge gains (No. 123 in S&P+ offensive explosion), but the Black Knights don’t need home run plays because they never lose yards (No. 3 in S&P+ offensive efficiency, No. 2 in S&P+ rushing success rate) and never turn the ball over (No. 3 with only nine turnovers lost; five of those turnovers were interceptions, which in Army’s world are quasi-punts).

Army is like your neighborhood deli: You go there all the time because every meal is guaranteed to be solid at an affordable price. It’s boring in the best possible way, predictably above-average, never terrible nor outstanding.

Army cannot throw a forward pass, and in some games they don’t even try. QB Ahmad Bradshaw attempted only 40 passes all season, completing just 13. The team’s leading rusher, Bradshaw has 1,566 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns (7.5 YPC) on the ground.

Outside of Bradshaw, Army uses a pair of big-back grinders (Darnell Woolfolk and Andy Davidson) and a shifty slasher in Kell Walker.

San Diego State also skews decidedly towards the run, but the Aztecs have a passing game that will keep you honest if you cheat. SDSU QB Christian Chapman threw for 1,848 yards and a 13/3 TD/INT rate on 60.1-percent completions and 6.4 YPA. His No. 1 receiver, Mikah Holder, should get a look from the NFL. Holder is the twin brother of Alijah Holder, Stanford’s ace cornerback.

We’re generally tentative to bet against strong triple-option teams, but have zero reservations about backing San Diego State in this spot. Veteran SDSU HC Rocky Long, who’s faced off against Air Force and New Mexico plenty in the MWC and also has experience against both Army and Navy, is renowned as one of the sport’s best defensive coaches against the triple-option.

The numbers bear this out, with Long going 11-1 SU and 8-4 ATS in his last 12 against option teams. SDSU beat both Air Force and New Mexico earlier this season.

Long’s defensive group is particularly vicious against the run this year, ranking No. 9 in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (110.4). In the regular season finale, San Diego State held option-running New Mexico to 82 rushing yards. In sum, over the past four games, the Aztecs have surrendered only 46.0 rushing yards per game.

On the other side, Army’s run defense ranks a mediocre No. 67. But that number flatters the Black Knights for three reasons: 1.) Their own rushing attack so effectively controls the clock that opponents see fewer snaps than normal, 2.) Army’s pass defense (No. 122 S&P+) made for an easier target, 3.) Army only lost three games total, and only one of those came by more than four points (Ohio State alone was able to milk the clock on the ground late).

To break Donnell Pumphrey's single-season school rushing record, Penny needs 107 yards. Army’s run defense (No. 116 S&P+) should oblige. If Penny gets going and the Aztecs have a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, the game’s as good as over. That’s how we see things playing out.

Dollar General Bowl

Appalachian State (8-4) vs. Toledo (11-2)

7 p.m., ESPN

Ladd-Peebles Stadium

Mobile, Alabama

Toledo -7 vs. Appalachian State


Straight Up:

App. St. Mountaineers logo

Against the Spread:

App. St. Mountaineers logo


View From Vegas: 

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: "There's very little action on this matchup and that's not surprising. The book really has no position on this one. Flip a coin."



If this matchup looks familiar, it’s because you saw it in last year’s Camellia Bowl. Hopefully this one’s just as good. Appalachian State held off Toledo 31-28 when Jameson Vest’s 30-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right near the end of regulation.

That win improved the Mountaineers record to a perfect 2-0 in FBS bowls. The way that game played out provides us with a few interesting data points.

The line opened Toledo -2.5 and closed with Appy State a narrow favorite. The Rockets entered 9-3, a similar squad to this year’s but slightly worse on offense (No. 16 S&P+ in 2016, No. 13 this year) and defense (70/57). Appalachian State was also 9-3, better on defense (27/36) and worse on offense (59/38) than they would be a year later.

Toledo came into that game averaging 529 yards per game. Appalachian State held them to 374. Rockets QB Logan Woodside went 18-for-26 for 247 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and current NFL stud Kareem Hunt ran for 120 yards and a pair of scores in his final collegiate game. It wasn’t enough.

Appalachian State had a simple strategy to slow down Toledo’s vaunted attack: Play keep away. The Mountaineers ground Toledo down with 297 rushing yards, and they held the ball for more than 11 minutes longer (35:44). Departed RB Marcus Cox rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown, and QB Taylor Lamb ran for 126.

The strategy is going to be much the same this time around, albeit facing slightly longer odds. Despite the loss of Hunt (and the season-ending injury to star WR Cody Thompson), Toledo has kept on humming offensively. This time they roll in with 509.9 yards per game and a slightly higher overall S&P+ grade.

Appy State suffered a wee bit of defensive regression, so they’ll have to hope their improved offense is as effective at keeping the ball away from Toledo as it was last season.

Much of that will come down to how well Lamb plays. The seasoned veteran will be playing in his 51st collegiate game; his 50 appearances are the most by any FBS quarterback. Lamb, the first freshman to serve as ASU’s primary starting quarterback since the great Armanti Edwards in 2006, is 35-9 in his last 44 starts.

Lamb has improved across the board in his final campaign, throwing for a career-high 2,606 yards on a career-best 61.7 completion percentage with a 27/6 TD/INT rate. He’s also more dangerous than he’s even been on the ground, topping his career-best YPC average by a yard-and-a-half (7.7) while running for 539 yards and five scores (take out sack yardage and he averages a blistering 9.6 YPC on 607 yards).

Cox is very much missed. Last year, both he and RB Jalin Moore ran for over 1,000 yards. This year, Moore finished with 924, and the Mountaineers never found a suitable back to pair with him (Marcus Williams Jr. finished with 432 rushing yards).

Of course, Toledo lost the better back. Hunt’s replacement, Terry Swanson (1,319 yards, 14 TDs), is a very good player, but obviously not Hunt’s equal (few are, even at the next level). Toledo’s ground attack fell off, but S&P+ overstates the severity of the plunge (No. 47 to No. 102).

That system was down on the Rockets running attack because it had a poor Rushing Success Rate, with lousy adjusted line yards and power success rate finishes, an indication that the offensive line has been an issue.

Woodside and the passing attack have kept the offense at the same level. The senior has been incredible in lieu of circumstances, weathering the losses of Hunt, Thompson and NFL TE Michael Roberts and the uneven play of his line to throw for 3,758 yards and a 28/5 TD/INT ratio on 64.9-percent passing and a slick 9.1 YPA average.

Toledo WR Diontae Johnson, who missed last year with an injury, emerged as a star in his return. He’s working with a 73-1279-13 line and is fifth in the nation with 155.92 all-purpose yards per game

If you’re mediocre or worse defensively, Toledo’s high-powered attack is going shred you. But if you have a running game and a solid defense, you can steal possessions and minimize the big plays the Rockets thrive on.

If Toledo was a UFC fighter, it would be Holly Holm. The Rockets want to keep the fight standing, where they can use their diverse set of striking skills to pick you off from the outside. You cannot beat Holm/Toledo by being more aggressive than they are. That’s the trap: You’ll walk into range over-extended, and you’ll take a head-kick KO like Ronda Rousey.

After Holm stunned Rousey, she went on a three-fight losing streak because no opponent would fight like she needed them to. Miesha Tate got Holm on the ground and choked her out, and Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie grinded Holm out in decision wins. Holm’s wins are thrilling, and her losses are snooze fests. As humans, we have a tendency to vividly remember the former and forget the latter, causing us to overrate the subject.

In last year’s bowl game, Appy State played the role of Miesha Tate. It was no fluke showing: Toledo always has issues against quality teams that play like that. We saw it earlier this season against Ohio, a near-perfect approximation of Appy State (S&P+ ranks Ohio No. 33, ASU No. 35) as a no-nonsense, run-first team with a strong defense. The Bobcats did the ground-and-pound thing and Toledo tapped early in a humiliating 38-10 loss.

Toledo enters Saturday’s game as objectively the better team in a vacuum. But games aren’t played in a vacuum. Rousey-Holm wasn’t fought on paper, nor was Holm-Tate. Styles make fights, and Toledo’s got a bad matchup for the second straight year.

Sunday, December 24

Hawai'i Bowl

Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4)

8:30 p.m., ESPN

Hawaiian Tel Federal Credit Union Field at Aloha Stadium


Houston -2.5 vs. Fresno State


Straight Up:

Fresno St. Bulldogs logo

Against the Spread:

Fresno St. Bulldogs logo



View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: "The rare situation where the book will need the favorite to come through. About 60% of money right now is on Fresno getting 2.5 points."



Out of the limelight, Fresno State HC Jeff Tedford oversaw a stunning turnaround that was as impressive as any Year 1 resurrection job this side of Boca Raton. Tedford doesn’t have Lane Kiffin’s gift for self-promotion, which means that many casual fans may be thinking about or watching the Bulldogs for the first time this season on Christmas Eve.

If you’re new to this upstart bunch, here’s a quick primer: You can think of Fresno State as the West Coast’s reflection of FAU. Like any reflection in the mirror, Fresno State shares many similarities with FAU on the surface but is in fact a reversed version.

Under Kiffin, FAU (3-9 in 2016) improved from 9-27 the three years before he got there to 11-3. Under Tedford, Fresno State (1-11 in 2016) improved from 10-28 the three years before he got there to 9-4 heading into Sunday’s game. Both Year 1 turnarounds rank among the best in college football history.

Kiffin did it with an offensive revolution. Tedford did it with a defensive revolution.

Last season, the Bulldogs finished No. 83 in defensive S&P+ and ranked an identical No. 83 with 30.9 points per game allowed. This year, Fresno State ranks No. 15 in defensive S&P+ and No. 12 with 18.7 ppg allowed. How did Tedford do it using many holdovers from last year’s 1-11 fiasco?

Firstly, he and HC Orlondo Steinauer shifted from Tim DeRuyter’s 3-4 scheme to a more traditional 4-3 set. As Kiffin inherited RB Devon Singletary to turbo-charge the FAU rebuild, Tedford inherited a strong defense front.

That front allowed the Bulldogs to defend the run without selling out to do so (No. 7 S&P+ power success rate against the run, No. 29 stuff rate). Beyond that, the Bulldogs flat refuse to give up big plays. They rank No. 1 in preventing explosive passing plays, per S&P+, and No. 18 in preventing explosive running plays.

FSU doesn’t create much havoc in the backfield, but that’s mostly by design: They’ve got the run taken care of by controlling the line of scrimmage, allowing more resources to be devoted to taking away the intermediate and deep levels of the field aerially.

Fresno State is familiar with this trip and stadium, having beaten Hawaii 31-21 last month in Honolulu. FSU is proof of the adage that defense travels. Fresno State was an 10-2-1 ATS cash cow during the regular season, but it was particularly terrific away from home, going a perfect 6-0-1 ATS.

The Bulldogs opened eyes around the country in mid-October, when they throttled San Diego State 27-3 in San Diego. But the weather needn’t be balmy for this crew to ball. The Bulldogs shrugged aside sub-freezing temperatures, high wind and altitude in shutting down Wyoming 13-7 in Laramie last month. Last time out in the Mountain West conference championship, Fresno State covered in a 17-14 loss to Boise State that was played in the high-30s.

Fresno State’s offense also made dramatic improvements, though it remains mediocre in sum. Achieving mediocrity was, we promise, a feat. Last year, FSU finished with the No. 123 S&P+ offense, ranked No. 124 with 17.7 ppg scored. This year, the scoring is up to 28.9 ppg (No. 65) and the unit is ranked No. 72 by S&P+.

The offense was designed to compliment the defense, and on that front it has been a smashing success. New OC Kalen DeBoer uses multiple formations, incorporating pro-style wrinkles on one play, shotgun-spread on the next, and two-TE sets when a yard or two is needed inside. DeBoer instituted a far slower pace, allowing Fresno State to be methodical and varied while opponents trend toward tempo and pure-spread philosophies.

While Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion is the best quarterback the Bulldogs have had since Derek Carr left, make no mistake: McMaryion is a caretaker only. He does his job well, hitting 61.1-percent of his passes with limited turnovers (four interceptions, zero fumbles lost) and sacks taken (seven).

FSU uses a three-man backfield rotation comprised of youngsters (two freshman and a sophomore) who are unable to create for themselves at present time. The Bulldogs ranked only No. 7 in the Mountain West with 4.45 YPC in conference play.

You may be wondering how an offense with only one skill position difference-maker (WR KeeSean Johnson) can be this effective in executing its game plan every week. It helps when you have an outstanding offensive line. Fresno State does, ranking No. 2 in offensive stuff rate and No. 1 in adjusted sack rate.

That’s a particularly useful strength to have in this one, because Houston DT Ed Oliver, a former five-star recruit, is one of the nation’s best players at any position. Despite double- and triple-teams throughout the year, Oliver has 69 tackles, 14.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks in 11 games.

A likely top-10 pick following next season, Oliver’s presence masked what was a somewhat disappointing defensive season for the Cougars. Houston regressed from the S&P+ No. 25 defense (23.5 ppg allowed) to No. 47 (23.0) in 2017.

Houston also fell from averaging 35.8 ppg in 2016 to 28.4 ppg this season. S&P+ would controversially argue that the unit actually improved (No. 69 in 2016 to No. 34 this year). We wouldn’t go that far.

But if QB D'Eriq King keeps playing as he was at the end of the regular season (991 yards passing, 6/1 TD/INT rate, 9.3 YPA), we might change our tune. King was a revelation after following five-star flop Kyle Allen and uninspiring vet Kyle Postma in the pecking order.

King’s game shares similarities with former starter Greg Ward’s in that both are sub-6 foot dual-threats who used to play receiver. King averaged 6.6 YPC on his 369 rushing yards (eight touchdowns) when sack yardage is removed.

Most of the rest of the cast of characters is similar. King gets to play with stud WR duo Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar, and RB Duke Catalon returned for another season of mediocrity.

Fresno State is 0-6 in its last six bowls—it hasn’t won one since beating Georgia Tech 40-28 in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl—but those pre-Tedford showings are irrelevant for our purposes. Tedford went 5-3 over eight bowl games at Cal. He has first-hand experience of the importance of motivation heading into the postseason.

In  2004, Cal went 10-1 (ranked No. 4) but was snubbed of a Rose Bowl berth. The Golden Bears fell to the Holiday Bowl, where the dispirited bunch lost to Texas Tech 45-31.

“After that announcement was made we had kids scattered through the stadium screaming and hollering,” Tedford told the Fresno Bee. “They were so frustrated because we felt that we deserved to be in the Rose Bowl and we got beat out by fractions of a point and it flipped at the last second for no reason.”

This year’s team is thrilled for the opportunity to compete, and they’re particularly keen on the idea of reaching double-digit wins. “That 10th win means a lot, just to show people that you can bring someone in and bring back a culture of a school,” CB Tank Kelly said.

Houston HC Major Applewhite would badly like to win himself after getting annihilated by San Diego State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl upon taking over for the departed Tom Herman. We don’t question his motivation, but we do question his team’s desire. A better Cougars team no-showed last year’s game, no doubt because, like Tedford’s 2004 Cal team, they felt they deserved to be in a bigger showcase.

They’ll have to scale the same mental hurdle this year, as a program formerly considered the Group of 5’s best has now been passed by several teams. Houston is no longer in the national discussion. They’re just another strong AAC team.

In addition to edges in coaching, motivation and various X-factor categories such as road play and familiarity with the site, Fresno State also matches up well on the field.

If you can neutralize Oliver, you neuter Houston’s defense strength—Fresno State has one of the Group of 5’s best OLs. And if you can keep King from escaping the pocket and take away explosive downfield plays to Dunbar and Bonner when he’s in it, the Cougars will have all kinds of problems moving the ball.

We see Fresno State controlling a low-scoring game and winning by a margin that seems far larger to the naked eye than it will on the scoreboard. And on that note, we leave you with this: The strong defenses on each side led to “under” wagers cashing in 19 of their 25 combined games. We don’t offer total plays, but if we did, we’d be betting on another under.


2017 Bowl Record (Through FAU-Akron): Straight-Up: 3-3 (50%); Against the Spread: 4-2 (66.6%)

2017 Regular Season Record:  Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)

2014-2016:  Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)

Thor Nystrom is a former associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
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