Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Impact of the NFL's Kickoff Rule Change

After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?

22 Nov 2012

SDA: All Eyes On the Irish

by Matt Hinton

By all rights, Notre Dame should be supremely confident Saturday at USC, facing a reeling, dejected team with three losses in its last four and nothing in particular at stake, which also happens to be trotting out a freshman quarterback in his first career start against the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation. The Fighting Irish are no strangers to big road wins, having already notched double-digit upsets at Michigan State in September and Oklahoma in October, vaulting forward in the national pecking order on both occasions. With last week's loss at UCLA, the Trojans are well on their way to becoming the first preseason favorite to finish outside of the polls altogether in nearly 50 years. Everything we know about these two teams right now says Notre Dame will beat the Trojans, punch its ticket to the BCS Championship Game on January 7 and bury two decades of mediocrity and angst.

By this point, though, everything we know about the stretch run in the BCS standings tells us we really know nothing. Two weeks in a row, the No. 1 team in the standings has gone down at the hands of a double-digit underdog; last week, the No. 2 team, Oregon, accompanied top-ranked Kansas State on its way down. The exact same scenario unfolded in 2011, when Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Oregon watched their championship hopes go up in smoke at the hands of double-digit underdogs in a span of 24 hours. The Fighting Irish themselves narrowly avoided joining the victim list themselves on November 3, when they rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit and survived a triple-overtime scare against a 16.5-point dog, Pittsburgh. With that track record, maybe it's a good omen that they're only favored this weekend by 5.5.

If the Irish do lose, there is no shortage of fallen contenders waiting to fill the void: Oregon, the winner of Florida-Florida State, maybe even Kansas State, which doesn't play this weekend but could find itself right back in the mix if the right dominoes fall. But that's only if the Irish lose: Otherwise, they will claim the first ticket to Miami, the winner of next week's Alabama-Georgia collision in the SEC Championship Game will almost certainly claim the other, and everyone is locked in a battle for the consolation prizes. For the first time in a very long time, everyone is looking up at Notre Dame.

TCU (+8.5) at No. 16 Texas (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When TCU
Has the Ball ...
When Texas
Has the Ball ...
Category TCU
(6-4)
Texas
(8-2)
TCU
Off
Texas
Def
TCU
Def
Texas
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 48 18
2012 FEI Rk 37 17
2012 S&P+ Rk 46 24 97 34 20 19
2012 FPA 41 3
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 104 65 7 7
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 75 23 37 28
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 90 45 9 17
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
58.8% Run
(60)
65.7% Run
(28)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 69 18 13 24
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
36.5% Run
(40)
31.9% Run
(69)

Like the first Pilgrims, Texas fans are giving thanks today just to be alive: In consecutive weeks in October, the Longhorns were obliterated by Oklahoma, lost their best player for the season, and barely escaped upset bids from Baylor and Kansas, if not the sense that the season had run into the same quicksand that swallowed a similarly fast start in 2011. Since the calendar turned to November, though, the Horns appear to have turned another corner with reassuring wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State, rediscovering the up-side in the up-and-down play of both sophomore quarterback David Ash and the defense as a whole. (The emergence of blue-chip freshman tailback Johnathan Gray has been a nice bonus.) They're not quite out of the woods yet, but with wins in their last two – against TCU on Thursday night, at Kansas State in the finale – a Big 12 title and/or at-large BCS berth could conceivably be on the table, and renewed sense of forward momentum is a given either way.

Georgia Tech (+14) at No. 3 Georgia (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Georgia Tech
Has the Ball ...
When Georgia
Has the Ball ...
Category Ga. Tech
(6-5)
Georgia
(10-1)
Ga. Tech
Off
Georgia
Def
Ga. Tech
Def
Georgia
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 56 17
2012 FEI Rk 38 14
2012 S&P+ Rk 41 16 16 40 84 6
2012 FPA 66 29
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 4 22 104 26
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 44 65 57 1
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 9 30 101 3
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
85.1% Run
(5)
59.8% Run
(57)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 36 45 66 17
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
65.4% Run
(4)
43.1% Run
(16)

The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets both clinched spots in their respective conference championship games last weekend, albeit under slightly different circumstances: Whereas Georgia (10-1) plans to charge into the SEC title game with a six-game winning streak at its back and a shot at the BCS Championship Game at stake, Georgia Tech (6-5) is backing into a likely slaughter at the hands of Florida State in the ACC Championship only because Miami elected to abdicate the Coastal Division crown in anticipation of potentially devastating allegations from the NCAA. (Another division frontrunner, North Carolina, was already out of the running due to a postseason ban handed down earlier this year.) Title notwithstanding, these are the same Yellow Jackets that fired their defensive coordinator at midseason following a blowout loss to Middle Tennessee State, and should not pose much of a threat to UGA's larger goals.

Just in case, Georgia scheduled a tune-up last week against the triple-option attack of Georgia Southern, which finished with 302 yards on the ground but only 14 points on the board, most of that damage coming in garbage time of a 45-14 rout. More importantly, it gave the Bulldogs an extra week to prepare for the option.

No. 19 Michigan (+4.5) at Ohio State (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Michigan
Has the Ball ...
When Ohio State
Has the Ball ...
Category Michigan
(8-3)
Ohio St.
(11-0)
Michigan
Off
Ohio St.
Def
Michigan
Def
Ohio St.
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 16 14
2012 FEI Rk 22 9
2012 S&P+ Rk 15 14 9 27 30 10
2012 FPA 77 64
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 11 16 21 5
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 8 31 36 23
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 15 35 25 5
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
71.1% Run
(9)
68.7% Run
(19)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 3 12 37 43
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
35.4% Run
(48)
48.6% Run
(8)

Given Denard Robinson's track record at the position, it's a little unfair to play "what if," but goodness, Michigan's offense has looked like the complete package with the passing game outsourced to the arm of Devin Gardner. Robinson has always been typecast as a glorified tailback in the shotgun, anyway – that's what he was recruited to be by his old coach, Rich Rodriguez – and seemed to be drifting even more inexorably in that direction before suffering the arm injury against Nebraska that's prevented him from throwing a ball at all over the last three month. Against Iowa, the Wolverines removed the pretense by limiting Robinson to a tailback/Wildcat role, and opened up the last frontier of the offense downfield: Gardner connected on five passes covering at least 20 yards, Robinson got his with 122 as a rusher/receiver and the Wolverines went for 300 passing/200 rushing for the first time in two years under offensive coordinator Al Borges. They also scored touchdowns on each of their first six possessions, all on drives covering at least 60 yards.

That was against a lame-duck edition of the Hawkeyes, not an undefeated edition of the Buckeyes, who have recovered nicely on defense from a midseason slump that nearly cost them their perfect season in close calls against Cal, Indiana and Purdue – all double-digit underdogs. Both sides certainly remember Robinson's spectacular performance against Ohio State by ground and air in 2011, when the Wolverines finally ended a gnawing, seven-year losing streak in the series, and OSU certainly knows that if Robinson can throw this weekend, he will, in one fashion or another. But with Gardner's emergence over the last three weeks, and especially with the void left by a season-ending injury to top tailback Fitzgerald Touissant, the line of demarcation between the every-down quarterback and the "change of pace" should be clear.

No. 5 Oregon (-9.5) at No. 15 Oregon State (Saturday, 3:00 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

OVERALL When Oregon
Has the Ball ...
When Oregon State
Has the Ball ...
Category Oregon
(10-1)
OSU
(8-2)
Oregon
Off
OSU
Def
Oregon
Def
OSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 4 13
2012 FEI Rk 3 8
2012 S&P+ Rk 2 18 1 23 17 18
2012 FPA 20 53
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 3 30 43 19
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 2 21 10 17
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 1 36 43 12
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.4% Run
(32)
52.9% Run
(102)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 29 3 8 34
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
53.7% Run
(6)
21.9% Run
(118)

If Oregon's warp-speed offense was "exposed" last week, it was only to the first-rate front seven of Stanford, which held the Ducks to their lowest point total since the 2009 opener – Chip Kelly's first game as a head coach on any level. The Cardinal came out of that game still sitting atop the Pac-12 rankings in rushing, total and scoring defense, with Oregon State still trailing not very far behind on all three counts. Like Stanford, the Beavers boast a solid, occasionally dominant defensive front that has held every opponent below its season average on the ground.

Unlike Stanford, the Beavers will get a wide-awake Oregon outfit coming off its first loss – its first challenge, period – and very likely out for blood. The Ducks still have plenty to play for, including a BCS bowl, a Pac-12 title and a shot at the BCS Championship Game, depending on what happens later in the day in Los Angeles. With just 14 points against Stanford, Oregon failed to score 30 points for the first time in 23 consecutive games, the longest streak in NCAA history. This is not the offense to bet against two weeks in a row.

Auburn (+33.5) at No. 2 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Auburn
Has the Ball ...
When Alabama
Has the Ball ...
Category Auburn
(3-8)
Alabama
(10-1)
Auburn
Off
Alabama
Def
Auburn
Def
Alabama
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 87 1
2012 FEI Rk 102 1
2012 S&P+ Rk 81 1 96 1 55 5
2012 FPA 51 4
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 47 1 69 9
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 121 2 48 4
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 58 2 73 14
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.2% Run
(33)
64.9% Run
(35)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 116 1 25 2
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
41.1% Run
(20)
44.1% Run
(15)

Under normal circumstances, Auburn would be the last hurdle remaining between Alabama and the SEC Championship Game, and a shot at returning to the BCS Championship Game. As it is, with the Tigers limping in at 0-7 in conference play and a new NCAA investigation under way into potential recruiting violations, the only suspense in the Iron Bowl is a) Whether Auburn can keep the final score below the grisliest margin in series history, a 55-0 slaughter in favor of the Crimson Tide in 1948, and b) How long head coach Gene Chizik will last after the final gun. Just two years removed from a national championship with Cam Newton at the controls, Chizik is widely considered a dead coach walking. These two teams have been playing for 110 years, and this may be the first time they look like they don't belong on the same field.

No. 4 Florida (+8) at No. 10 Florida State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Florida
Has the Ball ...
When Florida State
Has the Ball ...
Category Florida
(10-1)
FSU
(10-1)
Florida
Off
FSU
Def
Florida
Def
FSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 2 7
2012 FEI Rk 7 12
2012 S&P+ Rk 6 7 41 8 3 17
2012 FPA 11 9
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 31 26 5 6
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 62 6 3 31
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 53 8 3 11
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
70.9% Run
(10)
58.5% Run
(63)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 50 31 2 26
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
41.9% Run
(17)
35.9% Run
(43)

If you were only looking at the schedules, Florida State would be the side with some convincing to do, and that would be true to an extent: Although the human polls are sold on FSU's resurgence into the national elite, the six BCS computer polls – none of which are allowed to account for the Seminoles' huge margins of victory – continue to punish them severely for a slate that's included a single ranked victim (Clemson), not one but two games against FCS cupcakes (FSU has West Virginia to thank for that), and an explicable loss at N.C. State. As a result, the Noles are still relegated to 17th among the computers in the latest BCS standings, and badly need the validation of a win over Florida (a computer favorite, thanks to wins over heavy hitters LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M) to have any chance of being in the running if Notre Dame goes down. An ACC Championship win over middling Georgia Tech certainly isn't going to close any gaps.

Last year's Florida/FSU game in Gainesville was a relentlessly ugly affair in which both offenses accounted for 18 punts, 12 three-and-outs, 6 sacks, 5 giveaways, 4 third-down conversions, 3 drives that crossed midfield (none of which ended in points) and one turnover on downs; the Seminoles won with less than 100 yards of total offense. This year, both teams are dramatically better and the stakes are dramatically higher, but the box score is going to look roughly the same: Both sides are ranked among the top six nationally in every major defensive category, and both offenses have had to endure significant injuries. Florida limps in with starting quarterback Jeff Driskel tentatively expected to play after two weeks on ice, but the Gators were struggling offensively long before that. If they have any hope of outgunning E.J. Manuel and Co., it's going to require a heavy dose of takeaways by the defense, a blueprint that's worked pretty well for them in the past.

No. 21 Oklahoma State (+7) at No. 13 Oklahoma (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Oklahoma St.
Has the Ball ...
When Oklahoma
Has the Ball ...
Category OSU
(7-3)
Oklahoma
(8-2)
OSU
Off
Oklahoma
Def
OSU
Def
Oklahoma
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 11 6
2012 FEI Rk 15 5
2012 S&P+ Rk 22 13 24 10 24 28
2012 FPA 78 44
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 18 47 14 43
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 24 1 28 22
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 13 5 29 27
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
55.5% Run
(90)
53.1% Run
(100)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 47 30 19 7
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
37.9% Run
(29)
20.7% Run
(120)

No surprises here: Bedlam means it's time to buckle up and invest in a good helmet. As usual, the Cowboys and Sooners arrive with two of the most mercilessly fast-paced, wide-open spread attacks in a conference full of them, off games in which both were operating at full-throttle. Oklahoma's shootout win at West Virginia, in particular, will literally go down in the books as an example of the philosophy at its most absurdly prolific. Senior quarterback Landry Jones broke one school record with 554 yards passing and tied another with six touchdowns, the last one to Kenny Stills for the game-winning points with less than 20 seconds to play. That's what it took to overcome the assault from West Virginia, which piled up 762 yards – most ever against an Oklahoma defense, by a wide margin – and produced both a 200-yard receiver (Stedman Bailey) and 300-yard rusher (Tavon Austin, in the individual performance of the year). Not only does Oklahoma State run essentially the same offense: It has the same architect, Dana Holgorsen, who was hired as West Virginia's head coach specifically to import the prolific "Air Raid" system he'd perfected as offensive coordinator in Stillwater.

What the Mountaineers (and Sooners) have that Oklahoma State does not is proven, veteran playmakers in the passing game: Tailback Joseph Randle may be the most dependable workhorse in the Big 12, but OSU does not have a receiver of Bailey's caliber, and Austin has no peers anywhere as an all-purpose back except perhaps De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon. As explosive as OSU has been for most of the season, at times it's also shown some of the scars of injuries and attrition at both quarterback and wide receiver, especially at the margins; but for turnovers and missed opportunities in the red zone, the Cowboys might be undefeated. As it is, they can still make for some very exciting spoilers to Oklahoma's bid for a BCS game.

No. 8 Stanford (-2) at No. 17 UCLA (Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
When UCLA
Has the Ball ...
Category Stanford
(9-2)
UCLA
(9-2)
Stanford
Off
UCLA
Def
Stanford
Def
UCLA
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 10 27
2012 FEI Rk 10 18
2012 S&P+ Rk 12 38 47 42 4 35
2012 FPA 7 10
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 58 38 3 54
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 38 52 8 21
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 67 56 6 28
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
61.3% Run
(48)
61% Run
(50)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 30 17 15 45
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
36.3% Run
(41)
33.6% Run
(56)

Sorting out the stakes in the Rose Bowl may take awhile. For UCLA, having already wrapped up the South Division crown with last week's win over USC, the goal Saturday is home-field advantage in next week's Pac-12 Championship Game. Stanford is also playing for the right to host the title game after seizing the advantage in the North in back-to-back wins over Oregon State and Oregon, but still needs a win Saturday to punch its ticket. For the rest of the conference, the only plausible hope of getting a team into the BCS title game is still Oregon, which can boost its resumé in the title game with a chance to move onto Miami if USC upsets Notre Dame.

Get all that? In short, the Ducks are relying heavily this week on UCLA to open one door and USC to open another. Stanford would prefer to slam both.

If it does, it will be at the expense of an offense on an absolute tear over the past month. Since a bye week on Oct. 20, UCLA is averaging 459 yards per game in four consecutive wins, with at least 38 points in all four. (Most impressive in that span: The 611-yard, 66-point bomb the Bruins dropped on Arizona on Nov. 3, in which they went for 303 yards rushing and 308 passing.) Most frighteningly, the point man in that run is a mere redshirt freshman, Brett Hundley, who emerged nationally with a brilliant effort against the Trojans, but has been a nightmare for defenses all season: Eleven games into his career, Hundley has completed at least 63 percent of his passes, racked up at least 240 yards of total offense and accounted for multiple touchdowns in all eleven. Over the course of UCLA's current winning streak, he's completing 75 percent with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12-to-2 and an efficiency rating above 183, which is the kind of number that breaks records if sustained for much longer.

Last week, Hundley outplayed Matt Barkley for the title of "Best Quarterback in L.A." If he sustains that level against the No. 1 defense in the conference, he belongs among the discussion of the best in the country.

No. 12 South Carolina (+4) at No. 11 Clemson (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When South Carolina
Has the Ball ...
When Clemson
Has the Ball ...
Category S.C.
(9-2)
Clemson
(10-1)
S.C.
Off
Clemson
Def
S.C.
Def
Clemson
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 23 19
2012 FEI Rk 16 21
2012 S&P+ Rk 21 28 37 71 15 8
2012 FPA 58 33
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 68 39 9 25
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 15 103 20 3
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 52 46 7 26
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
63.8% Run
(37)
60.6% Run
(52)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 13 90 47 5
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
38.7% Run
(27)
35.4% Run
(45)

From the outside, Clemson is that most frustrating of teams: An outfit everyone thinks is pretty good, but which blew its only shot to prove it in a second-half collapse at Florida State. Otherwise, the Tigers have not lost, and have rarely been challenged into the fourth quarter. But how much does that mean when their best wins have come against the likes of Duke and N.C. State? South Carolina is the last chance to find out.

Carolina is also a convenient litmus test for how far the 2012 Tigers have really come over the 2011 edition that collapsed down the stretch after similarly brilliant start over the first two months. Last year, the Gamecocks dominated on both sides of the ball, sacking Clemson QB Tajh Boyd five times while their own quarterback, Connor Shaw, ran wild for 317 total yards and four touchdowns in a 34-13 rout. After twelve weeks, nothing will tell us more about the Tigers than how well they handle Shaw and blue-chip defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

No. 1 Notre Dame (-5.5) at USC (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Notre Dame
Has the Ball ...
When USC
Has the Ball ...
Category Irish
(11-0)
USC
(7-4)
Irish
Off
USC
Def
Irish
Def
USC
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 3 20
2012 FEI Rk 2 20
2012 S&P+ Rk 4 23 12 39 7 13
2012 FPA 75 37
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 15 55 8 29
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 9 27 9 7
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 10 38 4 22
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
61.9% Run
(42)
50.8% Run
(107)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 14 72 11 8
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
40.3% Run
(23)
29.3% Run
(88)

There is a line of thinking that holds that Matt Barkley's late, pointless shoulder injury in the closing minutes of last week's loss to UCLA will turn out to be a positive for USC, and it's hard to argue that the stagnant Trojans aren't in need of some new blood. In Barkley's place, they'll turn to redshirt freshman Max Wittek, yet another towering, blue-chip slinger from just down the road (he comes from the same Orange County high school that produced Barkley and Matt Leinart, Mater Dei) and will eventually command the same drools from pro scouts as his statuesque predecessors. He sidles into his first career start with the most lethal weapon in college football, wide receiver Marqise Lee, at his disposal, and the healthy confidence of a 19-year-old who's completed eight of his nine collegiate passes.

Then again, Notre Dame's defense does not come with training wheels. The Irish lead the nation in points allowed, having yet to allow more than 20 in regulation. The most experienced quarterbacks they've faced this season, senior Denard Robinson of Michigan, junior Stephen Morris of Miami, senior Landry Jones of Oklahoma and senior Tino Sunseri of Pittsburgh, have combined for six interceptions against a single touchdown. No secondary has been better at limiting long completions. Stranger things have happened, and an earlier generation of USC teams had a reputation for toppling undefeated Irish teams back when undefeated Irish teams were the norm in the sixties and seventies. Wittek could be a revelation, or could come through at precisely the moment his team and so many others need him to in a low-scoring slugfest. Or he could be just the last speed bump in the Irish's triumphant parade to Miami.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
TCU +8.5 Texas TCU Texas
Georgia Tech +14 Georgia Georgia* Georgia
Michigan +4.5 Ohio State Ohio St. Ohio St.
Oregon -9.5 Oregon State Oregon Oregon St.
Auburn +33.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Florida +8 Florida State Florida St. Florida
Oklahoma St. +7 Oklahoma Oklahoma Okla. St.
Wisconsin +2.5 Penn State Wisconsin Wisconsin
Stanford -2 UCLA Stanford Stanford*
Mississippi St. +1.5 Ole Miss Ole MIss Miss. St.
South Carolina +4 Clemson S. Carolina Clemson
Notre Dame -5.5 USC Notre Dame Notre Dame
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 5-6 (0-1) 71-49-1 (6-5)
Matt: 7-4 (0-1) 50-70-1 (4-7)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 22 Nov 2012

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