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Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Picks Dec. 29

Saturday, December 29, 2018


 

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*All stats below refer to S&P+ (an advanced stats computer model created by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) unless otherwise noted. “ATL” refers to my system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap). I use ATL to give me a ballpark idea of what a fair spread would be independent of public perception.

 

 

December 29



College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

4 p.m. ET on ESPN
AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Clemson (No. 2 S&P+) -12.5 vs. Notre Dame (No. 6 S&P+)
Total: 56
ATL: Clemson -12.5

At a glance

Clemson (13-0 vs. No. 76 SOS) - S&P+ off (7, 8/27), def (1, 1/6), ST (99)
vs.
Notre Dame (12-0 vs. No. 61 SOS) - S&P+ off (26, 74/21), def (4, 18/8), ST (62)

Oddmaker's intel

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “While there are around 19% less wagers coming in on this game compared to the other semifinal, it is the biggest decision for the book so far this bowl season. 60% of all wagers are on the Irish +12.5 and 71% of all wagers on them are moneyline bets at +335. We are going to go into this one needing Clemson big, and as it stands now we are okay with that.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects

Clemson EDGE Clelin Ferrell (Round 1 grade): “Tremendous defensive prospect who can rush the passer out of a three point stance or standing over tackles. Athletic, disrupts the action behind the line of scrimmage and also effective making plays in space.”

Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery (Round 2 grade): “Explosive defensive lineman in the midst of a great campaign. Large, athletic, disruptive and has a good degree of scheme versatility. Could end up in round one.”

The ‘cap

The most difficult aspect of this handicap is that we haven’t seen either team play many quarters against quality opponents. Both schedules rank outside the top-60 S&P+. Clemson played zero teams in the top-10, one in the top-20 (Texas A&M), and three others in the top-50 (Syracuse, NC State and South Carolina). Notre Dame played one in the top-five (Michigan), but only three others in the top-50 (Stanford, Syracuse and USC).

The lack of quality of opponents introduces unknown variables into this handicap. So do the new quarterbacks. Notre Dame QB Ian Book did not start a game against a top-25 S&P+ team (Brandon Wimbush was the quarterback against Michigan). Neither did Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence (Kelly Bryant was the quarterback against Texas A&M).

Interestingly, Clemson’s yards per play average has actually dropped a bit from Bryant to Lawrence (7.49 to 7.34) while Notre Dame’s has risen about a yard between Wimbush’s starts and Book’s (5.53 to 6.52).

Book enters this game shouldering an enormous amount of pressure because of the matchup itself. Clemson has one of the best defensive lines we’ve seen in the past decade of college football (the vaunted quintet of DEs Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and DTs Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins is also backed-up by more phenom recruits). Clemson is next-level dominant against the run, No. 1 in S&P+ by margin and leading the nation with a mere 2.4 ypa allowed. Clemson may have to make do without Lawrence on Saturday, however.

 

At the time of this writing, Lawrence was awaiting the results of his B sample after he flunked a drug test earlier this month. Results from that B sample are expected to be made public at some point on Thursday. Lawrence said he didn’t know how the banned muscle growth substance ostarine appeared in the failed drug test.

Lawrence was one of three Clemson players to test positive for ostarine. The two others are little-used backups. If the B sample comes back positive for any of the three, they would be suspended for this game (and probably the title game, too, if Clemson beats Notre Dame). If Lawrence is out, senior DT Albert Huggins will take his place in the lineup. Huggins is a rotational player who averaged around 20 snaps per game this season. Clemson would likely use a smaller defensive line rotation if that’s the case. Lawrence's absence would hurt -- he's a legit first-round NFL Draft prospect -- but defensive line is the one area that Clemson could probably afford to lose a star without dropping off significantly.

Notre Dame’s rushing offense ranks only No. 74 in S&P+, but it’s important to note that it’s improved over the last two-thirds of the season after RB Dexter Williams returned from a four-game suspension. Williams averaged 117.6 yards per game on 6.6 ypc with 12 touchdowns over the final eight games. To be fair: Williams didn’t play against Michigan, and Notre Dame didn’t face many other upper-tier defenses.

The best thing the Irish’s rushing attack has going for it is breaking off the occasional explosive Williams run. Clemson is No. 1 against rushing explosion. The Tigers’s rush defense is also No. 1 in rushing opportunity rate and No. 3 in stuff rate. In those two categories offensively, Notre Dame ranks No. 116 and 118. Make no mistake: Clemson is going to absolutely dominate the line of scrimmage defensively. Notre Dame isn’t going to get much of anything going on the ground, Lawrence or no Lawrence.

The Irish’s offensive line, which lost a pair of top-nine picks in the last NFL Draft, also lost stud left guard Alex Bars to a season-ending injury in September. The offensive line’s inconsistency hasn’t yet come back to bite Notre Dame. But if Notre Dame loses this game by two touchdowns or more, offensive line play will likely be the primary culprit. The Irish often keep a tight end in-line to help that crew, and you can bet they’ll be doing that more often than not against the Tigers.

That enormous matchup disadvantage brings us back to Book. Because Notre Dame is going to have little success running the ball, Book is going to have to throw his team to a win. Book is a better quarterback than Wimbush, clearly. But he’s also a better fit for this offense in conjunction with the down offensive line, because Book has four skills that quarterbacks playing behind mediocre lines need to have: He stays composed, he excels at evading pressure, he keeps his eyes downfield while scrambling, and he’s accurate on the move.

Book is also a nice compliment for Notre Dame’s receiving corps. HC Brian Kelly has collected a bunch of lanky athletes — WRs Miles Boykin (6'4) and Chase Claypool (6’4) and TE Alize Mack (6’5) — for Book to work with. When Book doesn’t have a clean pocket, he’s scrambling around waiting for one of those elevated gold helmets to steer itself into a sliver of space.

Because his three primary receivers all have big catch radiuses, Book can do his version of what Johnny Manziel used to do with Mike Evans, running around until firing it into a large window when it opens. Boykin and Claypool aren’t nearly the athletes that Evans was — they aren’t the route runners he was either — but each has strong hands, and each excels in contested situations. That’s key, because Clemson’s secondary isn’t going to provide much space to work with.

Notre Dame isn’t very explosive in the passing game, but they’re top-20 in both efficiency and completion rate. And while the offensive line’s inconsistency can be clearly seen in the advanced rushing stats, Notre Dame’s sack rate stats (No. 33) are perfectly acceptable. Book’s mobility certainly has helped in that regard, just as his accuracy has elevated the efficiency of the offense in general.

Clemson’s pass defense (No. 6) is more forgiving than its run defense, but not by much. Clemson (No. 6 sack rate) is going to consistently pressure Book. The Tigers rank No. 7 and 12 against completion rate and passing efficiency, the two areas where Notre Dame’s offensive bread is buttered. The Irish don’t have much recourse but to choose this specific poison when deciding how to attack Clemson. To skew run-heavy would be accepting the loss in advance.

Notre Dame needs a Doug Flutie performance out of the diminutive Book, and it needs it receivers to convert every catchable ball they see. If Notre Dame is unable to find success through the air, the chains will stop moving, and this is when Clemson begins the process of shutting off the oxygen in the room.

Clemson has the best defense in college football. But lets not discount Notre Dame’s (No. 4), which gives up only 17.2 points per game. The Irish also have NFL players littered all over the unit, led on each level by DT  Jerry Tillery, ILB Te'Von Coney and CB Julian Love. Converted safety OLB Drue Tranquill and Navy transfer S Alohi Gillman add range and reliability.

Notre Dame is very good at taking away explosive plays (top-10 against both the run and pass, and top-5 overall). They struggle a bit more — and this is going to become our theme — at controlling the line of scrimmage. The Irish rank No. 58 in both run stuff rate and sack rate. The pass defense (No. 8) and run defense (No. 18) remain strong overall, however, because they aren’t going to allow you to score six points in 30 seconds. That’s more or less off the table.

It’s the kind of defense that grows on you. When I’ve watched it this season, I’ve consistently seen teams be able to have small amounts of success against Notre Dame, success on the micro level. But while Notre Dame will allow you to move the ball a bit, they are extremely, extremely hard to score on (beyond even the no-explosive plays thing).

The Irish rank No. 4 in points allowed per scoring opportunity. Per NBC Sports Notre Dame beat writer Douglas Farmer Farmer, only three opposing offenses — Vanderbilt, Stanford and Northwestern — scored two offensive touchdowns against Notre Dame in non-garbage time this season.

Clemson has beaten every opponent it has played when QB Trevor Lawrence started and finished by 20 points or more. The stats are beautiful. But I’m here to tell you that they’re a bit deceiving. Clemson only played one S&P+ top-40 defense when Lawrence started and finished a game. That was Boston College (No. 28), and the Eagles were the only team to hold the Lawrence-led offense under 30 points (Clemson got 20, if we want to be specific; the other seven came on a return TD).

So again: Your handicap is going to require you to make situation assumptions. Because we haven’t seen Lawrence against a Notre Dame-caliber defense, and we haven’t seen Book against a Clemson-caliber defense. Frankly, neither have seen anything close.

But we do know that Lawrence is going to get more help than Book from his running game. RB Travis Etienne (1,464 yards and 21 touchdowns) is one of the nation’s premier backs, and there are three backs behind him who all have at least one 60-yard rush this season. Notre Dame is going to do its part to cut down on the home runs, but Clemson is almost assuredly going to nick the Irish up with singles and doubles. Clemson’s offensive stuff rate of No. 10 tells you that the offensive line gets a push that the running backs take advantage of. That’s one area where Clemson’s offense will excel.

As for Lawrence, he’s been a downgrade on Bryant as a runner (obviously) and an upgrade on Bryant as a passer (obviously). Lawrence has taken far few sacks per attempt than Bryant did, though his ypa is only slightly higher (7.7 to 7.5). Clemson’s passing offense isn’t nearly as explosive (No. 53) as we remember from the Deshaun Watson days. But it’s very efficient and Lawrence doesn’t take stupid sacks.

Clemson is going to get its offense from intermediate throws and consistent non-explosive running gains. We know this. Notre Dame, meanwhile, needs to cross its fingers on Book and his tall-tree receivers. Advantage: Clemson.

Notre Dame has the special teams edge, while Clemson has the experience and coaching edges. Notre Dame HC Brian Kelly is just 3-7 ATS in bowl games, while HC Dabo Swinney is now a playoff regular (and a postseason monster in general Clemson is 7-1 ATS in their last 8 bowl games). Kelly has been a double-digit underdog four times at Notre Dame, going 1-3 SU and 2-2 ATS.

I want the points, because it’s difficult for me to trust Clemson to score enough to make me comfortable laying nearly two TD against a quality opponent. But the bet I like more is on the under. Diving deep into the advanced metrics really makes you appreciate the task ahead for each of these offenses. Each has a very small list of things they might be able to rely on for consistent sources of yardage, and each quarterback is in for the test of his young life.

The pick: Notre Dame +12.5, Under 56

 

College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl

8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Florida)
Alabama (No. 1 S&P+) -14 vs. Oklahoma (No. 4 S&P+)
Total: 77
ATL: Alabama -9.5

 

At a glance

Alabama (13-0 vs. No. 17 SOS) - S&P+ off (2, 5/1), def (8, 4/7), ST (93)
vs.
Oklahoma (12-1 vs. No. 68 SOS) - S&P+ off (1, 1/2), def (89, 53/91), ST (32)

Oddmaker's intel

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “This is a very closely bet game on the spread, with 55% on Oklahoma and 45% on Alabama. We are however looking at some big exposure on the moneyline as more than 60% of the wagers are on Oklahoma +410. This is the first time I can recall a game moving on the moneyline (Moved from +430 to +410) without the spread moving at all (opened and still is at 14). There is a little bit of concern about the two-underdog parlay in the semifinal as not only would we probably be down on the bowl season overall at that point, we are also looking at a significant loser from a futures perspective.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects

Alabama DT Quinnen Williams (Round 1): “Improving almost weekly, Williams has watched his draft stock fire North faster than any prospect in the nation and is poised to be the first pick of the draft. He’s a great athlete developing into a complete three down lineman."

Oklahoma OL Cody Ford (Round 2-3 grade): “Well liked in the scouting community, Ford is a massive college right tackle many project to guard. He’s a powerful, wide-bodied blocker who moves very well on his feet.”

The ‘cap

The same caveat must be made before we get into any Alabama handicap: To bet the Tide, you must pay a tax. Not a mythical tax. A real one based on objective numbers. Here, we aren’t getting the same amount of line value on the ‘dog as we did in the SEC title game with Georgia (an easy Bulldogs cover), but I’m still showing a solid 4.5 points of line value on Oklahoma.

Doesn’t mean you have to take it, doesn’t mean that Alabama won’t blow out Oklahoma… but it does mean that you’re paying a stiff price for the right to get behind the Crimson Tide. Whatever side you eventually choose, you can cherry-pick trends that will support your decision. This game has some really compelling ones.

On the Oklahoma side, underdogs of 14 or more points in bowls over the last five seasons have won four of the 12 games outright. And for whatever it’s worth, S&P+ gives the Sooners a 27% chance of pulling off the upset. On the Alabama side, a more straightforward historical trend: Over the past decade, the Big 12 is 29-45 ATS in bowl games, while the SEC is 58-43-2. The SEC has also been dominant against the Big 12 in bowl games in recent years. This game pits the worst Power 5 bowl conference against the best (though last year’s Oklahoma-Georgia semifinal should probably disavow you of the inclination to blindly follow that trend).

This game is being billed as a heavyweight fight between two offensive powerhouses led by Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa. And it is that. But don’t get too wrapped up in that while breaking down the game. The offenses are what they are. Oklahoma’s is the best in the nation, and Alabama’s isn’t far behind at No. 2. That’s the easy part of the handicap.

To beat Alabama, you must play lights-out on offense, you must cut down on the explosive plays the Tide’s offense generates, and you must pick up hidden points in the special teams game. That’s the plan. Is Oklahoma capable of executing it?

The Sooners finished 5-7-1 ATS this season because the No. 89 S&P+ defense consistently let lesser opponents hang around in games they had no business being in (the 15-point win against KU being a prime example). Oklahoma’s lone loss, the 48-45 October setback against Texas, cost DC Mike Stoops his job. The Sooners’ defense still hasn’t made a turn for the better without him. Since the beginning of November, it has allowed 43.2 ppg (the Kansas game is one-fifth of that sample size).

Oklahoma is actually slightly above average nationally in run defense (No. 53). The secondary, on the other hand, has been dreadful. The Sooners rank No. 91 in pass defense and are particularly awful at preventing efficiency (No. 126) and completions (No. 106). But one kinda-sort-of promising datapoint is that the thing that Oklahoma’s pass defense is best at is limiting explosive passes (relatively speaking; Oklahoma ranks No. 65 in that metric).

I will absolutely not vouch for Oklahoma’s defense. But I’ll say this: While they are terrible at defending efficiency (against the run and pass both), they’re passable in preventing big plays (again, relatively speaking, but OU ranks Nos. 49 and 56 in S&P+’s two major defensive explosion categories). This is a crew plenty familiar with pass-heavy attacks as well after playing conference foes Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the Big 12 slate. Oklahoma has seen more offenses that play like Oklahoma’s than vice-versa. And familiarity is worth something, as we talk about more frequently when handicapping rematches against triple-option teams.

Alabama’s passing offense is the nation’s best. It’s in this facet of the game, and in this facet of the game only, that the game could go awry for Oklahoma backers. There’s no question that Bama is going to shred OU’s secondary (assuming that Tua Tagovailoa is recovered from the high-ankle sprain he suffered against Georgia, which is the expectation). The question is to what degree the Sooners can mitigate damage.

Oklahoma will likely prioritize defending the deep sector of the field. Limiting Alabama’s freebies is a great idea, but it would also exacerbate the biggest mismatch in this area of the game, Alabama's No. 2-ranked pass efficiency offense against Oklahoma’s aforementioned 126th-ranked pass efficiency defense.

Assuming Tua is healthy and dealing, Alabama is going to methodically shred the Sooners through the air (though, again, Oklahoma might have a tick more success in limiting home runs than some assume). If I’m Alabama, I want to throw as much as possible, and I want to go after Oklahoma’s biggest weakness by hitting my athletes on the move in high-percentage scenarios in the intermediate sector of the field, crossing routes, drags, slants, and things of that nature.

If that’s successful — and it’s essentially guaranteed to be — Oklahoma is going to have to modify its plans to either speed up Tua’s clock (blitz) or flood the intermediate sector with more bodies. It’s at that time that you start to bake in your downfield shots to Jerry Jeudy and your exotic wide receiver screens to the burner Jaylen Waddle. Intersperse all that with dashes of fully-rested RBs Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs (particularly, in Jacobs’ case, in the screen game), and you’ve got yourself a delicious offensive bonanza cake.

It’s easy to picture how Alabama’s offense will look against Oklahoma’s defense. The more interesting thought experiment occurs when you flip the field. The treat here is that Alabama will be facing a superior offense for the first time all season. This is something that occurred more frequently in recent seasons. Last year’s title team, for instance, ranked No. 23 S&P+ offensively. But that team had the best defense in the nation by both conventional and advanced metrics, while this year’s Alabama defense is really good but not elite (No. 8).

This Alabama team is something new, a different team, yes, of course, but more to the point a different team with a completely different general strategy. And yes, when we talk about those changes, we fire up the superlatives and evoke fear for any team in the Tide’s path. But while this Tide team is more likely to blow you out, its increased reliance on offense, the quiet regression of its defense, and the season-long special teams clown show have, by extension, made Alabama a higher-variance team.

Alabama gleefully ran up the score on long-time SEC rivals by introducing them to an offensive powerhouse the likes of which the conference had never seen. That style of play is old hat to Oklahoma. Against teams like LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, we knew Alabama had almost no chance to get upset because the opponent wasn’t going to be able to reach the 30-point marker due to a lack of offensive ammunition.

Not the case with Oklahoma. Alabama may well score 60 points in this game. But they will have no choice but to keep scoring because the Sooners light up everyone. Toss out the Army game (in which Oklahoma finished with a strong 8.8 ypp but almost got upset because Army drained the clock and only allowed the Sooners to have eight offensive possessions total), and Oklahoma’s low point total all season was 37, against Iowa State. The best defense Oklahoma faced all year was TCU’s (No. 23), and the Sooners hung 52 on them with a 98% offensive percentile performance.

Alabama’s No. 8 defense provides a bigger test. The Crimson Tide have a tough task here, because Oklahoma is impossible to defend. The Sooners rank No. 1 in both of S&P+’s major efficiency rankings, and they also rank No. 1 in both of S&P+’s major explosion rankings. They also rank No. 1 in points per scoring opportunity, overall rushing offense, rushing efficiency, and passing efficiency (the passing offense is No. 2, behind only Bama).

The health of OU WR Marquis Brown, who suffered a foot or ankle injury against Texas, is something to monitor. The Sooners system isn’t predicated on leveraging one facet of the game or one individual player’s skills — that’s the beauty of it — but losing their most dynamic athlete in a game they must score a minimum 40 points to win would be rough. If Brown is out or limited, CeeDee Lamb is going to step into the featured role. He’s well equipped for that. The issue is more about replacing Brown’s athleticism with a green backup.

Brown’s absence would sting, but it won’t decimate Oklahoma. It’s impossible to stop the Sooners because if you take one thing away, they’ll kill you somewhere else. How long are you going to prevent from scoring an offense that’s No. 1 in the nation in 20+ yard plays but also easily No. 1 in explosion and elite-elite in both rushing and passing, with an upper-tier offensive line and a quarterback in Kyler Murray who is so athletically gifted as a runner and thrower that he’s already a multi-millionaire after going in the top-10 of the last baseball draft? There has been buzz that Murray would draw Round 1 consideration in the NFL Draft if he declares.

Outscoring Oklahoma is possible. Stopping them from scoring is literally impossible. They’re too talented, and HC Lincoln Riley is too next-level schematically. Check out film of any Oklahoma game the past two years. Nobody is better than Riley at consistently fooling defenders. The scheme itself plays down the opposing defense — indecision kills athleticism as much as a sprained ankle — and Oklahoma’s offensive stars take it from there.

Alabama’s defense ranks No. 4 against the run and No. 7 against the pass. The Tide are extremely good at defending efficiency (No. 3 in both of S&P+’s major defensive efficiency metrics). That defense proved devastating against talented-but-limited SEC offenses that could easily be made to play left-handed (Mississippi State, LSU, etc).

You can’t make Oklahoma play left-handed because every hand they have offensively is dominant, like a Hindu god. The bigger issue is that Alabama gives up way too many explosive plays. The Tide rank Nos. 45 and 69 in S&P+’s two major defensive explosion metrics. If Alabama cannot taper down Oklahoma’s home runs, they’re going to find themselves in a coin-flip shootout, like Georgia did last year.

Oklahoma’s biggest edge heading in comes on special teams. Alabama ranks No. 93 in special teams despite the fact that it has the best kick return unit in college football. How is that possible? The kicking and punting games are both shockingly abysmal -- field goals and punts are an adventure. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks No. 32 on special teams.

To return to our original handicapping mission statement: “To beat Alabama, you must play lights-out on offense, cut down on the explosive plays the Tide’s offense generates, and pick up hidden points in the special teams game.” Oklahoma is going to play lights-out on offense, and the Sooners will also probably pick up a few hidden points on special teams, whether overtly through an Alabama missed field goal (or two) or covertly through hidden yardage gained with field position advantages.

Oklahoma likely will be able to take some explosion away from Alabama’s offense, but they’re going to be powerless in keeping Alabama off schedule. As long as the Tide don’t make unforced offensive errors, they should generally be able to march up and down the field. Oklahoma’s goal won't be stop Alabama, but to force them to run more plays in the hopes that an unforced error or two will crop up through sheer volume. (And just so we're clear: If Jalen Hurts is prominently involved in this game -- if Tua's injury is more severe than he's letting on, or if it gets re-aggravated and forced him out -- I would bet my parent's mortgage on Oklahoma +14).

Two touchdowns is an absurd price to lay against a team as good as Oklahoma, a team with a transcendent, weakness-free offense and a big special teams edge. We’re going to get points galore, and that’ll lead to a high-variance game. For Alabama backers to feel at all comfortable with their -14 tickets, the Tide are going to have to be leading by 28 in the fourth quarter with the ball -- Oklahoma is a scary backdoor cover threat if Alabama's lead isn't more than 21.

That scenario is possible, absolutely. This is an Alabama team that won every regular season game by at least 22 points (before requiring a rally to beat Georgia in the SEC title), after all. But as Georgia themselves found out last year in the playoff, Oklahoma lights up defenses of all quality levels.

Georgia’s 2017 defense was clearly better than Alabama’s 2018 defense, and that Georgia team was unable to hold Oklahoma under 40 points in regulation (UGA defenders spoke of Oklahoma's offense with wonder after the game). That leaves Alabama’s margin for error in covering this number pretty small, even if you project a huge amount of offensive success (and I do).

One last thing out the door, with regards to the total. It's crazy, up near 80, but absolutely justified for reasons we’ve already brushed on. Alabama has gone over in eight of 13 games this season, while Oklahoma has gone over in 11 of 13. A 41-38 final gets us there, as does 52-28. The Sooners beat the Tide 45-31 (76) in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, and both offenses have been turbo-charged since then.

The pick: Oklahoma +14, Over 77


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Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com 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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