Welcome, finally, to game week. Soon our most recent memory of college football will no longer be the dreadful Alabama-Notre Dame national title game. Instead, a new season opens with a bunch of great quarterbacks returning near the top of the rankings, up-tempo offenses trying to take over the sport, NCAA investigations still hovering over the landscape and, of course, a predictable juggernaut on top of the polls.
One of the biggest mistakes voters make in voting in preseason polls is factoring in the schedule and making projections. Preseason polls, especially the ones that factor into the national championship picture, are not supposed to be predictive; they're supposed to be gauges of how good teams are. In August, we make our best, informed guesses about team strength. As the season progresses, rankings gradually shift toward what teams have actually accomplished.
So, the Sports on Earth Preseason Top 25 does its best to not think about schedules. For specific projections, see our bowl picks here and visit our conference previews: ACC, American Athletic, Big 12, Big Ten, Conference USA, Independents, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and Sun Belt. For an attempted gauge of the best 25 college football teams in America, all schedules being equal, see below.
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Let's first say there is a reasonably good chance Alabama will not win the national championship this season. It needed help last year, from Baylor (against Kansas State) and Stanford (against Oregon); it needed help the year before, from Iowa State (against Oklahoma State). Alabama is the closest thing there is to an unbeatable team in college football -- but that doesn't mean it actually is unbeatable, as Texas A&M showed, and as Georgia came within yards/seconds of showing. Still, it would be awfully difficult to objectively analyze the 2013 college football landscape and come away thinking that, on paper, Alabama will not the best all-around team in America. Three national championships in four years, while benefitting from the aforementioned help, are no fluke, given the coaching and the amount of talent that coaching has consistently assembled. On a neutral field Alabama would be favored to beat all 124 other teams in the country. And in the preseason, that's what matters.
Last year the Crimson Tide ranked fifth in offensive yards per play (7.00) and second in defensive yards per play (4.18). Several acclaimed starters are gone -- many to the NFL, as always -- but just as many return, and just as many are poised to emerge. Strangely, for a Nick Saban-coached team, the defense actually has more holes than the offense -- mainly at cornerback -- but that's OK. The weakest position at Alabama would be a strength for most teams. And this could be the best offense Saban's ever had.
The scariest thing about Oregon football in 2013 is how effective it will be at passing the ball. Oregon has developed a run-first reputation, and for good reason: The Ducks have ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing attempts each of the last three seasons, and first in yards per carry each of the last two. And the overarching philosophy of the offense won't change significantly from Chip Kelly as head coach to Mark Helfrich, or from Helfrich as coordinator to Scott Frost. Despite losing 1,700-yard rusher Kenjon Barner, Oregon's running game will surely be fine. If not quite at the level of Barner, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner can team with De'Anthony Thomas to keep the ground game going at a fantastic clip.
But Oregon's offense can be even more diverse simply because the best all-around QB in school history will be under center. Sophomore Marcus Mariota gives the Ducks the freedom to do just about anything, because he has the sprinter speed and the polished passing ability to succeed in any type of offense. With six of his top seven receiving targets back, including the versatile Thomas, wideout Josh Huff and emerging star tight end Colt Lyerla, this Oregon offense will continue to dictate the pace of the game and be as unstoppable as ever, even without Kelly.
Ranking Stanford third requires faith that the Cardinal will develop a downfield passing game. Not that Stanford can't be good without it: It still finished 12-2 with a Rose Bowl win last season despite dropping from sixth in yards per play (6.80) with Andrew Luck in 2011 to 71st (5.53). But with half a season of starts under his belt, it's time for Stanford to unleash sophomore Kevin Hogan's arm, hopefully with a healthy Ty Montgomery out wide. The Cardinal has lost three tight ends to the NFL in two years, and dependable workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor is gone too, leaving a likely committee approach to fill the void. Not that it won't be effective: Whatever Stanford does, it will be able to compete with anyone in college football because of its superior physicality up front on both sides of the ball, from versatile guard David Yankey and tackle Cameron Fleming to defensive ends Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson to linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Up-tempo spread offenses are in style, but Alabama and Stanford prove that there are more old-fashioned ways to win too, and that's what makes the Stanford-Oregon rivalry in the Pac-12 North so fascinating. With a stable of less proven running backs, though, it will be crucial for Hogan and the receivers to stretch defenses more than they did last year.
4. Ohio State
Ohio State still feels like a bizarre football team to write about. The Buckeyes went 12-0 last season, their first under Urban Meyer, but all of those wins occurred a step removed from the "every game matters" mantra. They Buckeyes passed all their tests, winning a bunch of close games against mediocre teams despite some lapses defensively, and that was it. No opportunity for a postseason game, no chance to win their first title and the Big Ten's first title in 10 years, no chance to keep a one-loss Alabama team out of the national championship game -- all because former players accepted free stuff. College football is a weird sport.
Now the prediction of many is that they'll repeat their undefeated regular season, win a 13th game in Indianapolis and head to Pasadena for the BCS National Championship, where, if they won, they'd become the first team since Nebraska in 1994-95 to finish undefeated in back-to-back years. That's not impossible, but obviously it's not easy either. In any case, we're not here to deal with the schedule or where Ohio State will stand in December. We're dealing with the Buckeyes team as it stands, and despite the loss of six starters in the defensive front seven, it should be better than last year. Braxton Miller should be better as a passer in Year Two of Urban Meyer's system; an influx of talented freshmen should give him more help in his supporting cast; the defensive line is loaded with budding stars, like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. Despite the necessary uses of the word "should," Ohio State is undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the country. Whether or not it can repeat last year's magic is another matter.
Speaking of bizarre teams to write about, no matter what weird things Les Miles decides to do on a football field … it just all seems to work out. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in six of his eight seasons in Baton Rouge. Only Alabama reloads more effectively, which is why I have a hard time doubting the Tigers' ability to overcome 10 early entrees to the NFL draft. In fact, despite the severe attrition on defense and the relative stability of the offense -- except at offensive coordinator, where Cam Cameron takes over -- the offense still remains the bigger question mark after QB Zach Mettenberger showed flashes of being a big-time player but wasn't consistent, and after the offensive line was more often than not mediocre. After the preseason hype he received last year, Mettenberger really isn't getting much attention as a breakout candidate in 2013, which may be a mistake. He has a talented stable of running backs (if Jeremy Hill can stay out of trouble and Alfred Blue can stay healthy), his top four receivers are back, and his offensive line can be good enough. As always, the LSU defense will turn out fine. If Mettenberger takes a leap forward, don't discount LSU's ability to take down Alabama.
As dependent as Texas A&M is on Johnny Manziel, the same can be said about Clemson and Tajh Boyd. The star senior quarterback opted to return for his final season (he may have been the top QB drafted had he left), setting the stage for a season in which the Tigers' expectations are the highest in years. You can't talk about expectations and Clemson without talking about how the Tigers usually fail to meet expectations, but this feels like a different Clemson team. Dabo Swinney has assembled one of the best coaching staffs in America, with offensive coordinator Chad Morris sure to get a major conference head coaching job in the near future, and defensive coordinator Brent Venables coming over from Oklahoma and at least helping to form a more respectable unit in the wake of the Orange Bowl disaster. Even without 1,400-yard WR DeAndre Hopkins and 1,000-yard tailback Andre Ellington, and even with a suspect offensive line aside from tackle Brandon Thomas, a healthy Boyd means big numbers from the Clemson offense all season. What's most important, then, is another step forward for Venables' defense, one that possesses a fast and underrated front seven led by pass rusher Vic Beasley, but will continue to give up big plays. Obviously, the latter part is a problem, but if that improving front seven can also make big plays of its own to set up Boyd and the offense, the Tigers are going to be a dangerous team. It's far from a sure bet, but there aren't many teams (Alabama and Oregon?) that you can speak about with complete confidence in both their offense and defense. I'll gladly take the team with a quarterback who can make throws like this.
Perhaps this series of rankings gives away my pick for Saturday's Clemson-Georgia showdown, but so be it. The teams are similar, in some respects, meaning that there's no reason not to expect a shootout when they meet at Death Valley. In Athens, Georgia fans used to love to expend energy criticizing offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, but now the Bulldogs return most of the key contributors for an offense that led the nation in yards per play last year -- yes, better than Texas A&M, better than Alabama, better than Baylor, better than Oregon. Quarterback Aaron Murray threw 10 picks, but he was still efficient overall, enough so that SEC coaches bizarrely named him their preseason first-team All-SEC choice over Manziel and McCarron.
So Georgia can score with anyone, but, like so many others in this tier of teams, it faces significant questions on defense, where all but three starters are gone, including star linebacking duo Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones. Most problematic, the secondary has thinned out, especially with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended for the opener and cornerback Reggie Wilkerson out for the season because of a knee injury. To mask weaknesses in the secondary, Georgia must quickly find a new pass rush, although sophomore Jordan Jenkins and freshman Leonard Floyd are certainly good candidates.
8. Florida State
Next to Alabama and LSU, Florida State is defense is the most likely to reload quickly. Unlike Ohio State, the Seminoles led the nation in yards per play allowed last season, at just 3.85, but like the Buckeyes, they lose six of their seven starters in their defensive front, returning only a potential All-American at linebacker (Ryan Shazier for Ohio State, Christian Jones for Florida State). But the Noles remain loaded, with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan a second-team All-ACC performer despite technically starting only two games, and sophomore end Mario Edwards, the former five-star recruit, moving into the lineup and aiming for a breakout season. The biggest loss could be defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, but coach Jimbo Fisher smartly raided Nick Saban's cabinet by hiring Alabama secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt. We'll just have to see how long it takes for the unit to gel (probably not long), just as we're left waiting to see how quickly redshirt freshman QB Jameis Winston adapts to starting under the weight of massive expectations (with All-ACC players all around him, probably not long either).
9. Texas A&M
Let us presume Johnny Manziel is innocent of the horrible crime of allegedly signing his name for money, and that he will play the season. If not, it goes without saying that all bets are off for the Aggies, even if the team is hardly just Manziel. But let's say Manziel will be back, and assume that even if he's not the same Superman-type quarterback he was last year, he's close enough. While Texas A&M lost two cornerstones on offense -- reliable receiver Ryan Swope and All-American left tackle Luke Joeckel -- the unit should be just as potent as the one that ranked No. 2 in yards per play (7.08) and had more plays of 20-plus yards (100) than any team in the country. The backfield is deeper, with Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams, Oregon transfer Tra Carson and sophomore Trey Williams joining Ben Malena to form one of the bets units in the country. The receiving corps still has star sophomore Mike Evans and promising freshmen like Ricky Seals-Jones. The offensive line still has tackle Jake Matthews, who will follow Joeckel's footsteps into the NFL. It is fair to ask if the defense, without sack artist Damontre Moore, is good enough for the Aggies to compete for a national title, but then again the Aggies were tied with Ohio State in scoring defense last year and weren't appreciably worse than Georgia in yards per play allowed, and all three face similar challenges in replacing a bulk of their starters.
Florida has come a long way since the '90s -- or, rather, Will Muschamp has effectively moved the Gators back in time, reversing the Fun 'n' Gun and the spread option into a physical, defense-and-special-teams-first grind. The Gators were often painful to watch last season, and if Jeff Driskel doesn't get some help in the receiving corps -- whether it's from cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy playing some offense and/or true freshman wideout Demarcus Robinson emerging -- then Florida's offense could be just as much of a slog as the one that ranked 92nd in yards per play (worse than winless-in-the-SEC Auburn). Still, there's no reason to think Florida won't continue to be very good. While the Gators may not be able to pass, nobody can pass on them either, with arguably the nation's best secondary, led by Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and a talented line. Perhaps as important as anyone is junior punter Kyle Christy -- a weapon in controlling field position, which is so crucial to Florida's style of play.
11. South Carolina
The Hit and South Carolina are intertwined; when you think of South Carolina football entering the 2013 season, you think of Jadeveon Clowney plowing through Vincent Smith and picking up the loose football with one hand. But we have to be careful not to let the larger-than-life Clowney hide the deficiencies the rest of the roster may have. That's not to say the Gamecocks aren't good enough to contend for the SEC East title. But QB Connor Shaw -- the more versatile and effective of South Carolina's two quarterbacks, ahead of Dylan Thompson -- plays with a style that opens him up to injuries; the team's most dynamic playmaker, receiver/return man Ace Sanders, is gone; and we're waiting to see if sophomore RB Mike Davis can take over the full load of carries. Throw in the loss of six of the top eight tackles, including all three linebackers, and South Carolina is far from perfect. But South Carolina does, of course, have one advantage over everyone, and only Ndamukong Suh is comparable in recent history to Jadeveon Clowney in terms of the ability of a defensive lineman to alter a game by himself.
The presence of Denard Robinson the last two seasons made for an odd transition from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges. They inherited one of the most explosive weapons in college football and would have been foolish not to utilize him, but it also prevented them from fully implementing the pro-style system Borges prefers to run. Still, they went 11-2 in their first season in Ann Arbor, then slipped to 8-5 last year as Robinson got hurt and they started making a transition to Devin Gardner. Now is when things are supposed to take off. Gardner can run, but he's also the type of passer who can line up under center and do what Borges actually wants to do. And with tackle Taylor Lewan up front and WR Jeremy Gallon and TE Devin Funchess catching passes, this season is ripe for an offensive transformation -- assuming a consistently good threat emerges at tailback. Everyone continues to expect star true freshman Derrick Green will eventually win the job, although Hoke has not surprisingly insisted that senior Fitz Toussaint (who averaged only 4.0 yards per carry before a leg injury ended his season) will start the opener. If the running game stabilizes, and if linebacker Jake Ryan makes it back from a torn ACL around midseason, this should be Hoke's most complete Michigan team.
13. Notre Dame
It's important not to let the BCS National Championship erase our memories of just how dominant the Fighting Irish were on defense for the first 12 games of last season. Yes, the Alabama game was a disaster in every way imaginable, but otherwise this was an immovable object, one that did not give up an offensive touchdown in four straight games against Michigan State, Michigan, Miami and Stanford. That streak would be impressive against four Sun Belt and MAC teams, let alone four major conference opponents, three of which were ranked. Heisman finalist Manti Te'o and second-leading tackler Zeke Motta are gone, but other than that? Almost everyone returns, from mammoth linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to linebacker Prince Shembo to corners Bennett Jackson and Keivare Russell. Quarterback Tommy Rees is a downgrade from Everett Golson, but he has enough talent around him and enough experience for the offense to do enough to let the defense continue to win games.
There will be no team more difficult to judge in 2013 than Louisville, as it seems all but impossible to write about the Cardinals without mentioning a schedule that is far and away the weakest among presumed national contenders. So No. 14 is the best guess for Louisville, a good team with an indisputably great quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater that beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl but still has too many concerns to completely buy into it. For one, Bridgewater succeeds despite a mediocre offensive line that finished 85th in sacks allowed. He does have a talented supporting cast, though, from deep threat DeVante Parker to a pair of impact transfers in TE Gerald Christian (Florida) and RB Michael Dyer (Auburn), and the Cardinals are surely better than their No. 43 ranking in yards per play. But, despite returning almost every starter, the defense remains average, and the Cardinals' depth and talent, while good, are still a step below the rest of the game's elite.
15. Arizona State
Maybe we're still mad at Todd Graham for the way he left Pitt, but the Sun Devils probably aren't getting enough credit for how good they can be. Junior QB Taylor Kelly slipped through the cracks last season despite completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 3,040 yards with an average of 8.4 yards per attempt. As did explosive running back Marion Grice, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per reception on 41 catches. As did senior tight end Chris Coyle, who caught 57 passes for 696 yards. Combine those impressive options on offense with a loaded defensive front, led by All-American tackle Will Sutton (13 sacks) and productive pass rusher Carl Bradford (11.5 sacks), and Arizona State is an experienced team poised for a breakout season.
This ranking is contingent upon faith that the defense will at last be passable, for the most part. If it is, if it can generate more of a pass rush with the help of Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman and cut down on the big plays allowed, then the Bears will score enough points on offense to give them a chance to win any game they play. The wide-open Big 12 is a perfect situation for Baylor to make a leap forward, as Art Briles will have one of the nation's best offense despite switching to another new starting QB, this time talented junior Bryce Petty. Petty is flanked by a dangerous one-two punch of running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin; he has one of the nation's best guards, Cyril Richardson, in front of him; Tevin Reese averaged 18.1 yards per catch last year; and true freshman Robbie Rhodes is close to a lock to put up huge numbers in this offense. If nothing else, you can't say Baylor won't be entertaining.
This fall has the feeling of a make-or-break few months for Mack Brown at Texas, with the Longhorns slowly crawling back from the 2009 runner-up finish, going 5-7, then 8-5, then 9-4 last year. While 9-4 isn't terrible, is was a failure for last season's Longhorns, particularly on defense, and particularly because of another blowout loss to Oklahoma (and perhaps it didn't help that old rival Texas A&M was living the dream in the SEC). Now, expectations are high as always, with an experienced and talented roster that should be the best in the Big 12, especially with LB Jordan Hicks and DE Jackson Jeffcoat healthy again. As Mack Brown and Major Applewhite dip their toes into the up-tempo offense game, and as the pressure mounts in Austin, Texas is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing teams of the 2013 college football season. There's top-10 talent, but I'm still wary of buying in completely.
Last year's Wisconsin team was an enigma. It went to its third straight Rose Bowl -- also losing its third straight -- and beat Nebraska 70-31 in the league title game, while also finishing third in its division (Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible) and losing five regular season games. And despite a third straight Big Ten championship, however contrived, coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas, which hasn't won a conference title since 1989 in the Southwest Conference. Yet for how weird times were in Madison, things really shouldn't change much under new coach Gary Andersen, who transformed Utah State into an 11-2 team that came within a 37-yard field goal of beating Wisconsin. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips are both competent QB options with talented players around them, from ageless wideout Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, to running backs Melvin Gordon and James White. The Badgers were a good team last year that three overtime games, and they'll be Big Ten contenders again.
19. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys ran 78 players per game last year and finished third in yards per play (7.01), and you can expect more of the same despite the departure of yet another offensive coordinator to a head coaching job (Todd Monken to Southern Miss). Coach Mike Gundy brought in D-II Shippensburg offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to make the rather big jump from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference to the Big 12, but it's not as if Yurcich is going to overhaul the Cowboys' system. In fact, Gundy hired him because he's not looking for any drastic changes, nor should he: Oklahoma State has ranked in the top eight in yards per play and the top three in scoring offense each of the last three seasons, and Shippensburg led Division II in yards per game last year while running 79 plays per game. Both QBs Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh have experience running Gundy's system, and with a good receiving corps the passing game should keep rolling. Coaching turnover has yet to stop it.
Year 100 of the Taylor Martinez begins with Nebraska continuing to float in some sort of four-loss purgatory. In losing exactly four games in each of Bo Pelini's five seasons, the Cornhuskers have not been good enough to be considered a national contender, but they've also not been bad enough (except in the Big Ten title game) to be considered a failure. They've just been kind of off the radar. Now is the final chance for Martinez, who ran for 1,019 yards and actually led the Big Ten in passer rating, to push Nebraska over the hump and to its first BCS bowl game since getting blown out by Miami in the championship game at the Rose Bowl more than a decade ago. The offense has plenty of weapons, from Martinez to wideout Kenny Bell to running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, but the defensive lapses -- 70 points to Wisconsin, 63 to Ohio State last year; 46 to Michigan, 48 to Wisconsin the year before -- need to stop, especially because the way to beat Martinez is to put him in obvious passing situations, meaning he's not the type of quarterback suited to leading comebacks with his arm.
Quarterback Stephen Morris has been getting a preseason push as an NFL prospect and a breakout candidate, and he does have many of the tools needed, particularly his arm strength. He just needs to become more consistent and more accurate, because if he does, Miami's offense, with the entire offensive line and All-American candidate Duke Johnson at running back returning, is going to put up a lot of points, after already ranking 16th in yards per play last season. The difference, though, between a borderline top-25 Miami and an ACC-contending Miami will be the defense, as the Canes gave up 45 to Duke, 41 to Virginia, 41 to Notre Dame, 36 to N.C. State, 36 to Georgia Tech, 52 to Kansas State … They ranked 97th in yards per play allowed and 82nd in scoring defense, struggling to make plays behind the line of scrimmage with no real standout player. If nothing else, a little improvement and Miami should finally play in its first ACC title game since joining the league a decade ago, assuming the NCAA doesn't decide it can't.
We still don't actually know who the TCU starting quarterback will be, as All-Big 12 candidate Casey Pachall returns from a season cut short by off-the-field problems and tries to retake the job from Trevone Boykin. In fact, Gary Patterson has been so stubborn in his refusal to give LSU any information that both quarterbacks will be captains for the opener against the Tigers. Pachall has proven to be the better passer in the past, but whoever plays is good enough to make TCU a Big 12 title contender. While the defense has had issues of its own in the offseason -- star DE Devonte Fields was suspended two games and leading tackler Joel Hasley left the team -- Patterson's defenses are one of the most reliably good units in college football. Between Fields, when he returns, and cornerback Jason Verrett, the Horned Frogs have at least two All-American candidates on that side of the ball, and they're a solid bet to have the Big 12's best defense again.
Easily the most surprising quarterback decision of the offseason occurred in Norman, where 99 percent of America assumed that short-yardage quarterback Blake Bell, he of the Belldozer, would inherit the full-time starting job from Landry Jones. We were all mistaken. Instead, Bob Stoops named redshirt freshman Trevor Knight the starter for the opener against UL Monroe, although we shouldn't expect the decision to necessarily be permanent, and we shouldn't expect the end of the Belldozer formation. Still, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, as Knight was rated a four-star dual threat QB out of high school by Rivals.com, and to repeat the most-repeated of Bell's stats, he has more rushing TDs (24) than pass attempts (20) in his Oklahoma career. In a wide-open Big 12, Oklahoma could finish anywhere from first to fifth, and the exact placement will depend on both the quarterback play and the status of a run defense that allowed 5.17 yards per attempt (113th) last season.
24. Boise State
Fresno State's getting a push to unseat Boise State in the Mountain West, and maybe the Bulldogs will, but one of the most foolish things one can do in college football is doubt a Chris Petersen-coached Broncos team, no matter how many starters they lose -- in this case, 14. They lost a ton last year too, though, and still went 11-2, quietly wining their third straight Las Vegas Bowl. Somehow, Boise State continues to reload, and this time it has a solid quarterback in Joe Southwick returning, in addition to a talented defensive line led by Demarcus Lawrence and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and a promising sophomore running back in Jay Ajayi (6.7 yards per carry). Rinse and repeat; Peterson is 84-8 at Boise State with at least 10 wins in each of his seven seasons as head coach.
Northwestern was not that far off from winning the Big Ten Legends last season, holding leads in every game, only blowing those leads in the second half in its three losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan -- three historic powers that generally have deeper, more athletic rosters than the Wildcats. But they return 15 starters, including both quarterbacks who play -- runner Kain Colter and passer Trevor Siemian -- 1,300-yard rusher Venric Mark, the three leading receivers and a few standouts on defense, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell and end Tyler Scott. Northwestern has a long way to go before it follows in the footsteps of fellow academic power Stanford, but this is a good team with good weapons and great coaching -- one capable of beating anyone in the Big Ten.
Next 10: USC, UCLA, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Washington, Oregon State, Fresno State, Cincinnati, Kansas State, Vanderbilt
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