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08 Nov 2005

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Put Your Money Down

by Russell Levine

LAS VEGAS -- Picture a perfect setting for college football and the scene probably involves fall foliage, marching bands, tailgate parties, and fans wearing school colors, singing fight songs, and strutting to the stadium en masse.

Or perhaps it involves expatriate alumni gathering at the sports bar to watch the game and revisit a slice of the campus life. Drop into a sports watering hole in New York on a Saturday afternoon and you're likely to find packs of fans dressed head to toe in school colors, cheering their teams. The devotion to the school is driven by a shared experience and an attachment to the traditions that run so deep in college football.

The idyllic setting one imagines probably does not, however, include winding lines of anxious gamblers busily filling out their betting slips, waiting for the chance to slap their money down before the first game kicks off at 9 a.m.

But if you watch college football here in Las Vegas, that's exactly the scene that materializes -- and it's driven by a devotion to a sometimes hidden aspect of the game that has made football, both college and the NFL, America's true national passion.

That aspect is gambling, whether it's a bet with the local bookie, an office pool, a parlay card found in a fraternity house, an offshore Internet account, or here, in the casino sports books. Only in Nevada can one legally gamble on professional and college team sports, and it's done in nearly every casino on the Las Vegas strip.

The NCAA treats gambling as a profane word, and the NFL pays lip service to discouraging the practice (the league has turned down Las Vegas advertisements during Super Bowl telecasts). But both organizations know their sports' popularity would not be nearly what it is without the willingness of millions of people to put a little something down on a game each weekend.

That is because football, by its nature, is the perfect gambling sport. Thanks to the point spread, which to a large degree transforms a game of skill into a game of chance, either team is an attractive proposition, even in the mismatches that dot the college schedule with such regularity.

Football is never far from the minds of many of the tourists who wander the Strip. On a fall Saturday, one finds packs of fans wearing jerseys, hats, and school t-shirts. Everywhere you turn, the day's biggest games are playing on big-screen televisions. Score updates flash across the giant, neon casino marquees. All in all, it's not that different from the atmosphere you'd find in a campus sports bar on a big-game Saturday.

But inside the sports book, the scene is somewhat different. Crowds envelop the big screens to follow the game, but the spread is never far from their minds. When Tennessee staged its second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, you could palpably sense the crowd regaining interest in what had been a ho-hum contest as Tennessee, a 8.5-point underdog, put itself in position to cover the spread before eventually losing 41–21.

The NCAA has in the past supported proposed legislation to ban legalized gambling on college sports. That legislation, supported by Senator McCain of Arizona, among others, has so far failed to gain traction in Congress, and although NCAA officials have been publicly disappointed, deep down they probably know that the continued existence of legalized sports gaming in Nevada is good for the sport.

Any form of gambling has the potential to threaten the integrity of the game if it invades the locker room or coaching box. NCAA history is dotted with embarrassing point-shaving scandals and other black eyes in basketball and football, most recently at Boston College and Northwestern.

But continued legalized gambling in Nevada has helped to expose far more gambling scandals than it has created. The casinos monitor betting on games so closely, in fact, that any unnatural move in the point spread -- heavy money on one side or the other causes the pointspread to shift in an effort to equalize the betting on both teams and ensure a win for the house -- can spark an investigation. Abnormal betting patterns helped to expose a basketball point-shaving scandal at Arizona State in the 1990s.

The NFL, too, takes measures to ensure the accuracy of its point spreads. Teams are fined if they fail to provide timely, accurate injury reports. One of the major purposes of such reports is to protect the integrity of the point spread and prevent teams from withholding injury information that enterprising gamblers could be tempted to pay for.

The other reason the NCAA should abandon its efforts to end legalized gambling on its games is that Nevada sports betting represents but a small fraction of the wagering that goes on in college sports. Eliminating it would do very little to slow the overall amount of betting, and would only force more gamblers to seek other options for placing their bets -- options that may not include the careful spread-monitoring done by the Nevada casinos.

Plenty of ink has been spent debating the pros and cons of legalized sports wagering, but the NCAA knows -- as the NFL certainly does -- that it should leave wagering alone because it helps drive interest in the sport.

One look around the Vegas Strip on fall Saturday tells you that. Those who come to cheer their teams do so for their own victory.

John L. Smith Trophy

Hat-tip to reader Devin McCullen for this week's JLS Trophy winner, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

Schiano earns the honor for a sequence in the Knights' loss to South Florida Saturday. The Bulls were leading 28-14 and faced a 4th-and-1 from the Rutgers 33-yard line. USF sent out the punting unit, but let the play clock expire, presumably to give themselves more room to punt without kicking the ball into the end zone.

That's when Schiano got tricky. Figuring that USF wanted those five yards, he decided to decline the penalty and force them to kick from the 33. Only USF responded by going for it -- and picking up the first down, leading to a lead-stretching field goal.

Any coach in Schiano's situation would prefer the opposition to punt rather than go for it on 4th-and-1. The penalty would have made it 4th-and-6, a sure punting situation, but Schiano gave USF another chance to rethink its own decision, and this time the Bulls made the correct call to go for it, and opportunity they were only given by the Rutgers coach.

BlogPoll Ballot

Here's my latest ballot in MGoBlog's BlogPoll. Last week's ranking in parentheses.

1. Southern Cal (1): UCLA game doesn't look so scary anymore.
2. Texas (2): The fact that Texas doesn't have to scoreboard watch coming down the stretch can only help the 'Horns.
3. Penn State (9): Never let Wisconsin in the game.
4. Miami (Florida) (5): How much do those missed field goals vs. FSU hurt now?
5. Alabama (6): I know the offense has been awful without Prothro, but they deserve this spot for now.
6. Notre Dame (4): I may have been a touch over-enthusiastic about them, but I think the Weis factor helps make up for the shaky defense.
7. LSU (8): Can't really take much from the App. State game.
8. Georgia (10): Shockley should be back this week.
9. Virginia Tech (3): Ugly. But this still feels like the right landing spot.
10. Ohio State (11): Defense is really playing well.
11. Oregon (13): That's a good win with the backup QB.
12. Auburn (15): I like their chances vs. 'Bama.
13. Florida (12): Not sure they deserved that win vs. Vandy, but they'll take it.
14. UCLA (7): Played with fire for too long, finally got torched.
15. West Virginia (18): Another weekday nighter this week for the Big East's BCS hope.
16. Texas Tech (21): Reluctantly.
17. Florida State (14): Revenge of the Amato strikes.
18. Michigan (19): DNP.
19. Wisconsin (16): Looks like no Big Ten title swan song for Barry.
20. Fresno State (20): Grudge match with Boise up next.
21. TCU (22): Wins Mountain West in first year in league.
22. Georgia Tech (22): At UVA, at Miami, vs. Georgia next three weeks.
23. Louisville (NR): Unstoppable at home, shaky on the road.
24. Colorado (NR): Barnett may have done one of his best jobs this year.
25. Northwestern (NR): Nice job coming back from poor performance vs. Michigan.

Dropped out: Boston College (17), Cal (24), Rutgers (25)

Games I watched: Bits and pieces of lots of 'em. I was at the sports book!

Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun

Posted by: Russell Levine on 08 Nov 2005

35 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2005, 10:33pm by CaffeineMan

Comments

1
by ElAngelo (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 2:56pm

There was some chatter a year or so ago that Delaware was considering legalizing sports betting as a means of revenue for the state. Seems actually like an almost logical thing to do, gambling won't be going away, so why shouldn't the gov't make some dough off of it?

2
by Duck in MA (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 4:23pm

If Notre Dame gets one of the two at-large bids (which if they win out they almost certainly will), which conference will get the second? Pac-10, Big-10(11), ACC, or SEC?

The SEC has a lot of teams up there right now, but they're all going to be playing each other in the next few weeks and in the championship so I don't know if they'll have one undefeated and one one-loss team or two one-loss teams. I certainly don't think Alabama is going ot go undefeated with that "offense". If both Penn State and Ohio State win out, should the Buckeyes with two losses to top-6 teams get a berth? Or how about if the ACC has two one-loss teams in Miami and Virginia Tech? And Oregon has 2 games to go and only 1 loss to #1 USC.

My current guess:
Rose: USC v. Texas
Fiesta: Penn State v. Virginia Tech
Sugar: LSU/Georgia v. Notre Dame
Orange: Miami v. West Virginia

Holiday Bowl: Oregon v. Texas Tech in a great match-up of two one-loss teams in a non-BCS bowl.

3
by Mac (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 4:57pm

Oh, an undefeated team "deserves" to be behind only two teams with losses? How generous of you.

4
by Russell Levine :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 5:23pm

Re: 3

Penn State and Miami simply give me more to go on. Penn State has three "good" wins: over Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Miami has two (VaTech and Colorado) but the VaTech one, on the road, is the best win by far of either Miami, Penn State or Alabama. Alabama's best win was over Florida, with the Tennessee win still decent, even in a terrible year for the Vols.

On a neutral field, I'd pick either Penn State or Miami over Alabama if the game were played this week (meaning, no Prothro) and that's the reason for the ranking order. However, 'Bama has LSU, Auburn, and potentially the SEC title game left, so they have 3 chances to prove me wrong.

5
by Tarrant (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 5:28pm

I think it depends on where Notre Dame goes.

If the Fiesta Bowl has the open slot (i.e. Notre Dame is somewhere else), I think they take a 10-1 Oregon. The Fiesta Bowl likes Pac-10 teams, and Oregon will travel to the bowl.

However, if the Fiesta has Notre Dame, and it's the Orange or Sugar that has the open slot, they don't take Oregon (too far). At which point I could see a 1-loss Virginia Tech (which is only 2 spots in the BCS away from a guaranteed berth) heading in.

T.

6
by Duck in MA (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 5:43pm

The Fiesta Bowl is the hardest to pick. If Texas makes it to the Rose Bowl with USC (an almost foregone conclusion), the Fiesta will have the first "pick" of the teams. They may take Notre Dame, or they may take Penn State (who hasn't been to a major bowl longer than Notre Dame and will also travel well). The Orange Bowl will like the former Big East matchup (plus Miami doesn't travel well) and the Sugar should jump at the chance for Notre Dame vs. SEC. This really leaves the Fiesta between Pac-10 (Oregon) or ACC (Virginia Tech). They may take the Ducks (I can dream) for a re-match of the 1995 Rose Bowl, which would be pretty sweet - espcially if the scores reverse... But as you pointed out and I agree with, Virginia Tech could win out, not win the ACC, and be in the top-4 of the BCS standings and get an automatic berth.

7
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 7:20pm

Yeah, I see it lurking in some of these comments, but let's make it explicit. The BCS bowls which have choices (i.e. not tie-ins or the title game) don't care a whole lot who 'deserves' to be there. They are more concerned with which teams will sell out the stadium and bring 50,000 fans for a week of tourist spending. So being a better or more highly-ranked team won't mean a whole lot if the bowl doesn't think the fan base will 'travel well'. This is one reason tOSU has been an at-large team several times - they have a huge fan base and spend a ton of money (Michigan fan joke: "We know they spend a ton, but enough about their recruiting"). Schools like Notre Dame and Texas also fit this billing (Texas was practically guaranteed a Fiesta Bowl bid in 03, until KSU messed it up by beating OU).

Bowls will be more likely to pick the most 'deserving' team once they know the stadium will be packed by the other team. This was the Orange Bowl in 02. They knew someone had to take USC (#3 ranked, didn't win conference = automatic bid), but apparently there were doubts about how well they travel. So they used an option and jumped ahead of the Rose to pick Iowa, knowing they could sell out the stadium thrice with Iowa fans, and then picked USC for the marquee matchup and hopefully good ratings. Otherwise Iowa would've been Rose-bound to face WSU, and USC would've probably faced Oklahoma in the Orange, which apparently the Orange didn't want.

And that's why debating who deserves it more takes a backseat to who will spend more. And that's why Notre Dame will go to a BCS bowl every year they're eligible. Screw Notre Dame.

8
by Devin McCullen (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 7:37pm

Somebody pointed out that a 1-loss Alabama, especially if the loss came in the SEC title game, would be very hard to argue with. Notre Dame-Alabama in the Fiesta?

And Russell, thanks for the credit, I was glad to help. The only downside to Rutgers' success is that it keeps Schiano around. Like I said at the time, though, I also wonder what caused South Florida to change their mind about going for it when nothing had changed in the game situation.

9
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 8:20pm

I'm still amazed by Schiano's timing, and how it changed everything. He left Miami to take over Rutgers, and not long after Butch Davis went to the NFL (let's not discuss that, ok?). If Schiano had waited, he was the most likely choice to take over, he coud have won the 2001 title in his sleep, and he would probably be hailed as a genius. As it is, Coker has a title and a great rep, while Rutgers fans are wanting Schiano gone. Rutgers!!! Because he couldn't wait a few weeks, he went from probable 'title-winning genius' to 'not good enough for Rutgers'.

10
by Duck in MA (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 8:32pm

I think we all know that after the bowls automatic tie-ins, all they really want are teams that will bring a ton of fans and cash to spend. We all remember the undeserving Notre Dame team 5 years ago that got the nod to the Fiesta Bowl and was subsequently destroyed by Oregon State. But a one-loss Penn State team, with the return of JoePa to a major bowl should draw plenty of fans and money, as well.

If Alabama went undefeated in the regular season, but then lost in the SEC championship, they would make a strong case for an at-large bid. But let's say that VaTech wins out, but Miami wins the ACC. Whom do you take? Does Notre Dame really out-spend these teams? Notre Dame will get picked because of the national following and the "good story". Then, as Tarrant pointed out, the Fiesta has a history of taking Pac-10 teams. How would a 1-loss Alabama team feel getting snubbed for Oregon (or Virginia Tech due to automatic bid or Texas Tech due to proximity) because they'll bring in more money? Maybe if their boosters spent more at the bowl games and less on recruits...

We can all agree that Notre Dame is getting a little too much love this year. If you look at the top 10 in the BCS, there are two teams who are at least 5 places ahead in the human polls over the computer polls, LSU and Notre Dame. LSU would almost certainly be ranked much higher in the computer polls were it not for the 4th quarter meltdown against Tennessee, because they give so much weight to being undefeated. But the computers see Notre Dame for what they are: good offense, average defense, 2 losses and an OK strength of schedule. Face it, their marquee win over Michigan doesn't look so great now that they have 3 losses, and the other big matches like Tennessee, Pitt and Purdue aren't so hot.

11
by Jon Fuge everybody (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 2:32am

As a Penn State and Football Outsiders fan, I feel the BCS computer rankings are more effective at recognizing good teams than the polls. PSU is 8-2 against the spread, a clear sign that they have been under-rated by the public all year. The computer rankings have had them ranked higher than the polls for possibly the entire season. I wonder how much more effective the computer rankings really are........................

PS, I saw Aaron on ESPN and realized how rough it must be defending DVOA rankings. When my roomates saw your top 10 they demanded that espn "get that John Clayton wannabe off our TV." I tried to explain the rankings and I was asked If I've seen how bad Jacksonville has been the past couple of weeks. I do not envy you at all.

12
by R.J. (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:27am

If Texas goes to the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta will have the first choice and will definitely take Notre Dame. The money, the national attention, the fan base for ND makes it a certainty. You could almost make the case that ND will even "deserve" it this year, but these bowls (other than the BCS "championship") are not about which teams deserve to be in them.
Penn State's defense against Notre Dame's offense would be a fantastic match-up and would be one of the best non-champ bowl match-ups we have seen in the past 10 years. Let's hope it works out that way.

13
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 10:31am

Can someone explain what the big hang-up on sports betting is? On this side of the pond, there are legal 'bookies' everywhere, and you can bet on just about any sport you like. (the NFL included. Colts are 200-1 on to win the AFC South and 13/8 for the superbowl).
Why the fear of gambling in the USA?

14
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 12:28pm

To paraphrase a comedian, I'm pretty sure it's because you allowed the US to be founded by Puritans.

15
by Flann (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 12:58pm

Trogdor- In one paragraph you discuss the 2002 selection, in the next you state ND is chosen for the BCS every time they are eligible. But, they were eligible in 2002 and not chosen (which was a good call by the Fiesta Bowl).

16
by Domer (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:04pm

#10: No, we can't all agree on that. But please keep underestimating the Fightin' Irish. We love being underdogs.

17
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:04pm

Oh, and if anyone's curious - if you remember tunesmith's beatpath graphs for the NFL, I've got beatpath graphs for the Big Ten linked here.

No, I don't plan on doing them for all of college football (though tunesmith might). That's a little insane, in my opinion.

18
by buddha (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:13pm

But Russell, all that Penn State jive won't mean anything when Iowa beats Wisconsin, MSU beats Penn State and Michigan beats Ohio State.

Michigan in the BCS. Have faith my blue colored friend...

19
by GatorGriff (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:27pm

Regarding all this bowl talk: Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Orange Bowl has the first at-large pick, which is why most nat'l media outlets are predicting Notre Dame will play Miami in the Orange Bowl??

20
by GatorGriff (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:32pm

Also, is it just me, or does Mike Gottfreid sound like a bumbling drunk when he is on the air?

21
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 4:35pm

buddha:

And Michigan beats Indiana. Wouldn't it just be great for all three things you mention to happen, and Michigan loses to Indiana?

Oh, the irony!

22
by R.J. (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:26pm

#19
The Fiesta will have the 1st at-large pick if Texas is taken by the BCS Champ game (a bowl that "loses" its tied-in conference champ supercedes the bowl that would otherwise have the 1st pick). With Notre Dame already gone, who will the Orange bowl take as an "at-large" to play Miami? (Please don't let it be a VaTech or FSU meaningless rematch.)

23
by GatorGriff (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:37pm

#22: Since when did the Fiesta Bowl have a tie-in with the Big 12? Isn't the Big 12 tie-in with the Orange Bowl?

Also, as for your Miami-FSU rematch, notwithstanding a Miami upset to Wake, GaTech or Virginia, we are going to see that in the ACC Champ game on Dec 3.

24
by Tarrant (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:50pm

The Fiesta Bowl has had a tie-in with the Big 12 since the inception of the BCS.

T.

25
by R.J. (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 6:05pm

One thing's for sure, which ever bowl picks last gets stuck with West Virginia (or Pitt). Remind me again why the Big East gets a guaranteed spot?

Also, re: rematches, one of the last remaining virtues of the bowl system is that it has the potential to provide college football fans with games between teams that would not otherwise play each other. When bowls fail to do that and instead match up teams that play each other all the time for the sake of ticket & hotel room sales, etc., something is lost.

26
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 8:06pm

R.J. - or South Florida. Gotta love that win over Louisville.

27
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 9:14pm

My bad.

28
by Patrick (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 9:56pm

Re: #10--No Notre Dame is lower in the computer average b/c the BCS rules don't allow scoring margin to be taken into account despite the fact that scoring margin is probably the best measure of a team's strenght. Check the Sagarin ratings, for instance, where if scoring margin is accounted for Notre Dame is (I think) #5 in the country as opposed to high-teens/low 20s when margin is not taken into account.

29
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 10:07pm

Scoring margin is not an unbiased indicator of team strength. It's a gross indicator - that is, it'll work for a typical team vs another typical team.

Take a look at Sagarin's ratings - you'll notice all PAC-10 teams are rated very high, and all SEC teams are rated very low. On the average, it works fine - but for teams with a strong defense, it underrates them, and for teams with a strong offense, it overrates them.

Scoring margin doesn't work well for low-scoring games because score is not a uniform deviate. The difference between a 10 point victory and a 3 point victory is not a factor of 3 in strength. When the number of scores becomes high enough, though, it starts becoming a uniform deviate. That's why, on average, it's a decent measure.

Oddly enough, Notre Dame is one of those "strong offense"/"weak defense" teams.

30
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 10:11pm

Bleah. Missed a section. What I mean by it's not an unbiased indicator is that a 10 point lead for a terrific defense could be a solid victory, but a 14 point lead by a team with a poor defense (facing a great offense) could be a very narrow victory.

See the Northwestern/Iowa game. Just a minor change in the game and it's a 14 point victory for Iowa. But that game turned around very, very fast.

Whereas in the Penn State/Ohio State game, a 7 point lead was enough to decide the game through almost two quarters.

31
by james (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:55pm

So when do we start seeing major conference DVOA's?

Is this info too hard to get?

It would only involve like 100 teams, it wouldn't be that hard to do :)

32
by Duck in MA (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:10pm

Thank you Pat for explaining my position exactly. I don't think there will ever be a very good objective measure for all D1A college teams due to the varying schedules and turnover every year. This is why I (and I would guess most college football fans) put more faith in the human polls. They can do their best to average out which teams played better than others, taking into account scoring margin, home/away, what type of team (offense/defense) and many other factors. Of course, with this comes personal biases. Some think that the best teams are ones with good defenses and a ball-control offense. Others think high-powered offense will do better. Some think the SEC is the best conference and those teams should be given a better benefit, while others say the ACC/Big-10(11)/Big-12/Pac-10. I personally think that Notre Dame should be ranked about 10-12. If they win out, I think they would make a decent case along with any other 1 or 2 loss teams from major conferences. I feel this because while their offense has been very good, the defense has been a little suspect. I think a Sugar Bowl match-up of a one loss Alabama vs. Notre Dame would make a great game. But right now I would quibble with Notre Dame's higher ranking. There's still plenty of season left.

33
by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 4:50pm

The biggest bias in the human polls is this idiotic sense of "inertia". That is, the sense that a team that wins can't move down, and a team that doesn't play can't move down.

Take LSU, for instance. LSU was ranked 5th and 6th in the preseason polls. They're now ranked 5th in both.

That ranking is completely and utterly undeserved. Really, really, no offense to Tigers fans, but they simply haven't played well enough to deserve a number 5 ranking. Their best three wins were against Florida (#12), Auburn (#15/#17), and Arizona State (NR), and all three of those games were by a margin of 4 points or less. And they lost to a now 3-5 Tennessee.

That is not a team worth of #5. The reason they're there is because when they lost to Tennessee, people thought Tennessee was a good team, and so they only dropped LSU down to #11. Then, all the teams above them lost, and LSU continued winning (against no one particularly special), so they moved up. So now LSU is #5, and if they beat Alabama, they'll be #4 or #3, even though their slate of games will still be worse than several of the teams below them.

That's why when I do my top 25, I typically start with a computer ranking and adjust the teams based on opinion from there - pushing Notre Dame up for that loss to USC, pushing Texas Tech down for that loss to Texas, etc. (And pushing all unbeatens to the top, but that's because I don't agree with ranking unbeatens)

34
by james (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 9:02pm

How do you suggest the bias be taken out of the human polls?

I say they should poll the oddsmakers instead.

35
by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 10:33pm

Hallelujah! An enlightened view of sports betting. I salute you, Russell. I've never really seen the comment about legal sports betting reducing scandals written in the mainstream.