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College football 2012 preseason Crystal Ball predictions

SI.com's 2012 Preseason Crystal Ball
SI.com college football contributors Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples, Holly Anderson, Lars Anderson, Cory McCartney, Ben Glicksman and Mallory Rubin share their predictions for the upcoming season. For more 2012 preview coverage, visit our preseason content archive.
BCS Bowl Projections
 
Stewart Mandel
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Andy Staples
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Holly Anderson
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Lars Anderson
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Cory McCartney
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Ben Glicksman
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
Mallory Rubin
 Title Game Rose Sugar Fiesta Orange 
 vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. 
 
National Champion
 
Mandel
Fueled by last year's title-game debacle, the Tigers will once again win the SEC. But this time, they'll hold up the crystal ball in January. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo headline the deepest, most talented defensive front in the country; an experienced offensive line will help produce a powerful run game; and quarterback Zach Mettenberger will provide the vertical passing attack Les Miles' teams have lacked.
Staples
This is not 2010 all over again. That year, the Crimson Tide couldn't defend a national title because of a talented-but-raw defense. This year, Alabama has enough defenders who played in key spots in 2010 and 2011 to handle some turnover. On offense, quarterback AJ McCarron returns behind one of the nation's best lines, and Eddie Lacy will try to follow Trent Richardson the way Richardson followed Mark Ingram.
H. Anderson
Because when every team looks like a terrible preseason pick for the title game, ride with crazy and see where crazy takes you. I'll take Les Miles armed with his 20-sided die and maybe an actual quarterback over all the holes we can poke in the other programs' plans.
L. Anderson
The Tigers need only competent, steady play out of first-year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger to win the title. With a dominant offensive line, the deepest running back corps in the nation, a defensive line that features three future first-round draft picks and the top safety in the land in Eric Reid, LSU possesses more overall talent than any other team this season -- and it will show in the national title game against USC.
McCartney
Matt Barkley is back, along with 18 other starters, and the embarrassment of riches got even more embarrassing with the addition of running back Silas Redd, a Penn State transfer. There are questions surrounding the defensive line, but the T.J. McDonald-led secondary is stacked and the Trojans luck out by having their toughest game, Oregon, at home. Look for USC to add another crystal football in its first year back from a bowl ban.
Glicksman
'Bama doesn't rebuild; it reloads. And despite losing Trent Richardson, Dont'a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick, among others, Nick Saban has the pieces to challenge for his third BCS title in four years. The nation's top offensive line will pave the way for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, while C.J. Mosley and Robert Lester will anchor a green but unmistakably talented defense.
Rubin
The SEC's stranglehold on the national championship has to end eventually, right? Er ... right? Scholarship reductions make depth a real concern, but if the Trojans can stay healthy they'll be the most talented team in the country. USC gets to host Oregon and Notre Dame at home -- and it gets to watch Matt Barkley throw to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee each week.
 
Surprise Team
 
Mandel
Oregon and USC are unquestionably the class of the Pac-12, but the Utes could wind up the next best by season's end. They'll run the ball with John White, stuff the run with Star Lotulelei and a return to the spread offense days of Brian Johnson -- led by 25-year-old coordinator Johnson -- will benefit veteran quarterback Jordan Wynn.
Staples
Andrew Luck may be gone, but he wasn't the sole reason for the Cardinal's success. They'll still mash opponents with a huge offensive line and formations that seemingly use 17 tight ends. Plus, the defense should be better than last year. As evidenced by my BCS bowl predictions, I don't think the Cardinal will win the Pac-12, but I do think they'll make it interesting.
H. Anderson
The Bulls rope together a hefty herd of returning starters and will ride a largely favorable schedule to their first Big East championship in program history. (The surprise is that B.J. Daniels is still playing college football. His stat sheet says he's started 33 games; it feels like 300.)
L. Anderson
In his second year as a starting quarterback Tajh Boyd will emerge as a Heisman contender and engineer a mild upset over Florida State in Tallahassee on Sept. 22, paving the way for the Tigers to win the ACC and snag a spot in the BCS.
McCartney
The Wolfpack will play just four teams that won at least seven games in 2011. And with an offense that returns Mike Glennon (3,054 yards), last year's top rusher in James Washington and 2010's leader in Mustafa Greene and a defense featuring All-America corner David Amerson, NC State could take advantage and reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2002.
Glicksman
As I mentioned in my column on BCS sleepers, Utah appears primed to turns heads in 2012. The Utes have an All-America caliber defensive lineman in Star Lotulelei, a prolific feature back in John White and a more than manageable schedule. A run at the Pac-12 title -- and an unlikely Rose Bowl berth -- isn't out of the question.
Rubin
The Utes get Holy War rival BYU and BCS favorite USC at home and miss North Division heavies Oregon and Stanford all together. With that favorable schedule, a year of Pac-12 experience under their helmets and quarterback-hunter Star Lotulelei on the defensive line, Kyle Whittingham's club could be positioned to pounce in the South if the Trojans falter.
 
Flop Team
 
Mandel
There's been too much turmoil for this team to approach the SEC title dreams many still hold. John L. Smith may have worked with/for Bobby Petrino, but Petrino, not Smith, produced three top six teams at two different schools. That's impossible to replicate. The Razorbacks will lose a few conference games they shouldn't.
Staples
It won't be a bad season for the Razorbacks, but it won't be the national title run they envisioned. With Alabama and LSU coming to Fayetteville, the schedule sets up as well as it ever will for Arkansas, but Alabama and LSU will still be too good.
H. Anderson
Is it cheating to pick a team that recorded a 2-10 mark in 2011? Is a flop still a flop if the flopper in question never rises from a prone position? We'll have lots of time to answer these deep philosophical questions while waiting for Maryland to record a win against an FBS football program.
L. Anderson
Don't buy the talk of Texas being back after a 5-7 season in 2010. Mack Brown has admitted that he was so stung by the January 2010 loss to Alabama in the national title game that he let his program slide, and there won't be a rebound for the Longhorns in 2012 -- especially with a shaky, interception-prone quarterback in David Ash behind center.
McCartney
Have you seen the Irish's schedule? They play five teams that open the season in the Top 25 in No. 1 USC, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 8 Michigan, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 21 Stanford, not to mention BYU, which won 10 games last year. That would be daunting enough without an inexperienced quarterback in Everett Golson.
Glicksman
Seemingly every year, the Seminoles enter with lofty expectations. And seemingly every year, they struggle to live up to the hype. Expect more of the same this season. Florida State could run into issues during a three-game stretch against Clemson, South Florida and NC State from Sept. 22-Oct. 6.
Rubin
The 'Huskers keep earning a spot in the preseason Top 25 polls. They also keep underachieving and losing four games a year. The Blackshirts have regressed after their Suh-driven resurgence, and Taylor Martinez has yet to put it all together. This team is too dependent on Rex Burkhead to hang with a conference largely on the rise.
 
Conference Newcomer That Will Fare Best in Year 1
 
Mandel
It's unrealistic to think the Mountaineers will move up from the Big East (where they went 5-2 last year) and dominate the tougher Big 12, but with so many teams replacing star quarterbacks, Geno Smith's return ensures that Dana Holgorsen's offense will click from day one.
Staples
The Mountaineers are already built to play the Big 12's preferred style -- video-game offense, defense on occasion -- and they have a coaching staff loaded with Big 12 experience. The competition will be more rugged than what West Virginia faced in the Big East, but WVU should be able to handle the upgrade.
H. Anderson
The Mountaineers probably have to be my pick here, since I have them in the Fiesta Bowl and all, but that is not to say they won't do something goofy like sleepwalk through Week 2's neutral-site date with James Madison (the football team, not the Founding Father) or flail inexplicably in Lubbock, like other fine teams before them.
L. Anderson
The Mountaineers will have the most lethal passing game in the Big 12 this season with quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. West Virginia will win plenty of shootouts and challenge Oklahoma for the conference crown.
McCartney
The Mountaineers are fully loaded to make some noise in the Big 12. Quarterback Geno Smith and Co. should build off their Orange Bowl rout and put up even bigger numbers in Year 2 under Dana Holgorsen, and they'll do it against a Big 12 schedule that includes just one team that ranked higher than 66th in pass D last year.
Glicksman
Sure, the SEC remains as daunting as ever. But if the Tigers can take out a suspension-riddled Georgia team in Week 2, they could make a legitimate run at the SEC East. Not only does Gary Pinkel boast an offense that features dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and Calvin Johnson-clone Dorial Green-Beckham, but he also faces a schedule that avoids LSU, Arkansas and Auburn.
Rubin
It's tempting to pick Missouri, which will have a shot at the East if it knocks off Georgia in Week 2, but West Virginia faces an easier transition. Dana Holgorsen and his staff are familiar with the Big 12, quarterback Geno Smith is truly elite and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey form one of the best receiving duos in the nation. West Virginia's defense isn't good enough to lead the Mountaineers to a Big 12 title, but a nine- or 10-win season is in reach.
 
Best Bet to Bust the BCS
 
Mandel
Holly Anderson called this first, but she's got a point. If the Bobcats -- 10-4 a year ago -- can win their opener against roster-depleted Penn State (entirely realistic), Frank Solich's team may be favored in every other game it plays. With Boise State rebuilding, Houston losing Case Keenum and TCU moving to the Big 12, no one else has the ingredients for a possible undefeated season.
Staples
Ohio probably has the best chance to go undefeated, but beating Penn State in the season opener probably wouldn't provide the prestige bump necessary to bust the BCS. If the Bulldogs can beat Virginia on Sept. 29, Texas A&M in the rescheduled Oct. 13 meeting and run the table in the WAC's final year of football, they could send the league out with a bang.
H. Anderson
While Ohio has the best chance of any non-AQ team to go undefeated, that schedule is a certified clown show. The Bobcats will need a lot of help, in the form of losses from AQ and non-AQ programs alike, to earn a nod to a major bowl. Louisiana Tech stands a slimmer chance of putting together a 12-0 schedule, but will impress voters more if it does so, with a nonconference slate that includes Texas A&M, Houston, Illinois and UVA.
L. Anderson
This is the season we find out about the long-term prospects of Boise being an elite program. Coach Chris Petersen has only six returning starters, but he's strung together several strong recruiting classes and there's plenty of talent on his roster, including sixth-year running back D.J. Harper. The Broncos face a tougher schedule this season with early matchups against Michigan State and BYU, but Boise will be in the BCS conversation deep into the fall.
McCartney
The Cougars are without coach Kevin Sumlin and record-setting quarterback Case Keenum. But they do have a capable quarterback in David Piland, who threw for 2,641 yards and 24 touchdowns while filling in for an injured Keenum in 2010. They also have an explosive back in Charles Sims, who averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Most importantly, they'll be playing a manageable nonconference schedule that includes just one BCS conference team in UCLA, which was 6-7 last season.
Glicksman
Could the Bulldogs really warrant BCS consideration? Actually, yes. If everything breaks right for Sonny Dykes' squad, three winnable games against power conference foes (Texas A&M, Illinois, Virginia) plus the return of Colby Cameron and Quinton Patton could add up to a history-making season in Ruston, La.
Rubin
Ohio really could go undefeated, but it'll have a hard time cracking the top 12 or 16 playing a cakewalk of a schedule. After hanging tough with TCU in last year's bowl meeting, Tech will get a chance to topple BCS-conference foes Texas A&M, Illinois and Virginia. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Aggies will be a trickier upset mark on the Oct. 13 makeup date than they would have been in the originally scheduled opener.
 
Heisman Trophy Winner
 
QB Matt Barkley :: Peter Read Miller/SI
Mandel
RB De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon. Picking up where he left off in the Rose Bowl -- when he had 314 all-purpose yards against Wisconsin, including a 91-yard touchdown run -- the Black Mamba will spend Saturdays racking up SportsCenter highlight plays that keep him in voters' minds, then seal things by racing past Matt Barkley and USC in the Pac-12 championship game.

Staples
QB Matt Barkley, USC. I know the prohibitive preseason favorite never wins, but that has to happen at some point, doesn't it? Barkley has two great receivers and two good backs. He should be able to put up fantastic numbers.

H. Anderson
Barkley. A blond USC veteran quarterback who returned for his senior season and is already verified on Twitter? Barkley couldn't be more perfectly tailored for this honor if he handed out free kittens in the student section at halftime of every home game. (Lane Kiffin has already thought of this.)

L. Anderson
RB Monteé Ball, Wisconsin Even if Wisconsin doesn't win the Big 10 title -- and I don't think the Badgers will -- Ball will put up monster numbers in his senior year in Madison. Wisconsin will have three new starters on the offensive line, but its front wall still will be among the nation's best and will enable Ball to lead the FBS in rushing. All Ball needs in 2012 that he didn't have last season: a few signature highlight runs.

McCartney
Barkley. He has name recognition as a four-year starter at a power program, will exceed last year's numbers (3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns) with maybe the nation's top WR combo to throw to and he's doing it for a team that figures to be in the hunt for a BCS title. As the embodiment of the formula for crowning winners, the Heisman is his to lose.

Glicksman
Thomas. Given that the preseason favorite almost never wins, and that an underclassmen has captured the award in four of the past five seasons, I'll go with the dark horse candidate Thomas. Oregon's do-everything dynamo racked up 2,235 all-purpose yards as a freshman and could be primed for even greater totals with the departure of LaMichael James.

Rubin
Barkley. Sure, preseason favorites have to roll the hype-boulder up the hill all season, but Barkley's been training to scale the Heisman's version of Olympus for years. He'll throw to two of the nation's best receivers, play behind a veteran offensive line and benefit from a beefed-up run game. And of course, for better or worse he'll have that whole "best player on the best team" thing working in his favor.
 
First Player to Fall Out of Heisman Race
 
QB Denard Robinson :: Damian Strohmeyer/Icon SMI
Mandel
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas. For all the reasons stated above, Arkansas will fall out of SEC contention relatively early, and even if Wilson keeps putting up big numbers, he'll be overshadowed by other quarterbacks (Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron) in his own conference.

Staples
QB Denard Robinson, Michigan. He plays Alabama in Week 1. That should do the trick.

H. Anderson
Robinson. Picking Robinson here for reasons of chronology: He has to play Alabama, and he has to play Alabama first, bless his heart. (There's a real hater sweet spot happening with this first game -- either Robinson's narrative plummets to earth with the season barely underway, or the Tide's does.)

L. Anderson
Robinson. Robinson will be on the national stage on Saturday evening when Michigan faces Alabama in Arlington, Texas. With a big night, Robinson will emerge as the early season Heisman front-runner. With a bad night against Bama's young but relentless D, his Heisman hopes could very well be dashed. I expect a bad night for Robinson.

McCartney
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas. He faces the obstacles of not being the best contender at his position in the SEC -- South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is -- or the top threat on his own team -- that would be QB Wilson. Then there's the Week 3 date with No. 2 Alabama, a matchup that has the potential to put a further dent in his candidacy.

Glicksman
Robinson. Shoelace led Michigan to its first BCS bowl victory since 1999, but he also saw his stats fall off a bit in 2011. Robinson's passing and rushing yards both dipped from his sophomore year, and while the Wolverines should contend for a Big Ten title, he could have trouble replicating his astronomical 2010 stats. It also doesn't help that Michigan opens against Alabama, which led the FBS in rushing, passing and scoring defense last season.

Rubin
Robinson. Those concerns about Alabama's young D will be put to rest in Week 1 -- at Robinson's expense. Shoelace struggled protecting the ball last season, and he'll be bitten by that familiar bug in the opener, coughing up his Heisman hopes along with the football.
 
Breakout Star
 
WR Trey Metoyer :: June Frantz-Hunt/Icon SMI
Mandel
WR Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma. Landry Jones often attempts 45-to-55 passes a game, but the departure of Sooners All-America Ryan Broyles and several suspensions/defections leaves a void at wide receiver. Enter Metoyer, a five-star recruit out of Hargrave Academy with incredible leaping ability and hands that catch everything in his vicinity. He'll put up big numbers fast.

Staples
LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State. Shazier started the final three games of his freshman year and made 33 tackles. After his first offseason in a college weight room, Shazier has added bulk without sacrificing speed. Big Ten, you've been warned.

H. Anderson
WR Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech. Patton's got quite a mouth on him (and as mentioned in our conference previews, the confidence of his coaches in backing up that mouth) and is already starring in his own movie poster. If the Bulldogs acquit themselves well in their high-profile nonconference games, he'll get quotable in a hurry.

L. Anderson
QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU. I've spent a lot of time with the 6-foot-5, 222-pound Mettenberger this offseason, and he has all the tools to be a special player: a big arm, impressive accuracy and a firm grasp of the offense. LSU safety Eric Reid recently told me, "Zach is going to shock a lot of people this season." Agreed.

McCartney
WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri. As the Tigers enter the SEC, they may have the perfect player to help them make a major splash in the nation's No. 1 recruit. The 6-6, 220-pounder has been compared to A.J. Green and Julio Jones, both of whom were Freshmen All-Americas. Look for DGB to have a similar impact.

Glicksman
QB Casey Pachall, TCU. West Virginia's Geno Smith may be the most explosive Big 12 newcomer, but his TCU counterpart could also make a conference splash. Pachall posted a QB rating of 158 in his first season as a starter, 12th in the FBS, and brings back top target Josh Boyce. He's also shown a knack for stepping up in big games: He threw for 473 yards and five touchdowns in last November's upset of Boise State.

Rubin
RB Johnathan Gray, Texas. The Longhorns are already loaded at running back with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, but Gray is a special talent. The 2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year won't match his 65 -- 65! -- touchdown senior season, but he'll make an impact for a resurgent Texas squad.
 
Coach on the Hottest Seat
 
Gene Defilippo and Frank Spaziani :: AP
Mandel
Frank Spaziani, Boston College. The Eagles were a consistent eight- or nine-win team for a decade-plus but have sunk from 8-5 to 7-6 to 4-8 in Spaziani's three seasons. Star rusher Montel Harris was dismissed in May, and Spaziani's boss, AD Gene DeFilippo, recently announced his retirement. Spaziani needs a momentum-changing season to last past November.

Staples
Spaziani. A perennial overachiever has floundered on Spaziani's watch, and now the athletic director who hired/protected him is retiring Sept. 30.That does not bode well for Spaziani's continued employment.

H. Anderson
John L. Smith, Arkansas. Fair or not, loaded team or not, John-El has a 10-month contract. Like many of his coaching peers, he'll be shown the side door if he loses. Unlike many of them, he may not return next season even if he wins. (Please do return, John-El, and please allow him to do so, Jeff Long. One media day with this guy is at least 10 too few.)

L. Anderson
Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech. Last season Tuberville guided (or, more accurately, misguided) Texas Tech to a 5-7 record -- the first time in 18 years the Red Raiders failed to win at least six games. Tech also failed to reach a bowl game for the first time in 12 seasons. If both of those streaks continue in 2012, Tuberville, who is in his third year in Lubbock, will be gone.

McCartney
Spaziani. The Eagles' win total in his three seasons has gone from eight (2009) to seven ('10) to four ('11), which marked their worst year since 1995. The pressure is on Spaziani to turn things around and he's made major changes to his staff, including a fourth offensive coordinator in two seasons.

Glicksman
Spaziani. Boston College's win total has decreased in each of his three seasons as coach and things won't get easier without Lombardi Award winner Luke Kuechly. Making matters worse: The Eagles' schedule includes tests against Miami, Clemson and Florida State within the first six weeks.

Rubin
Spaziani. A two-win season won't cool the nation's warmest butt. Sometimes promoting from within doesn't work. And sometimes it takes four seasons to admit it.
 
Coach Who Will Fare Best in Year 1
 
Urban Meyer :: AP
Mandel
Urban Meyer, Ohio State. The Buckeyes still lack for playmakers on offense, but Meyer has a talented dual-threat quarterback (Braxton Miller), a pair of first-round defensive linemen (John Simon and Johnathan Hankins) and a lot less pressure with no championship on the line. It's an ideal way to start.

Staples
Tim Beckman, Illinois. Ohio State's Urban Meyer is another possibility, but you're supposed to win at Ohio State. Like Meyer did at Florida, Beckman will take Ron Zook's recruits and win.

H. Anderson
Meyer. He's an obvious pick here, and with good reason. He's a proven coaching commodity leading a proven program that's only rebuilding in the comfiest sense of the word. The Buckeyes also have a month of goodish nonconference competition against which to hone their craft before traveling to East Lansing.

L. Anderson
Meyer. This is an obvious pick, but it sure appears that Meyer will reinvigorate the Buckeyes, who finished 6-7 last year. With future star quarterback Miller running Meyer's spread attack, Ohio State will be explosive on offense. Expect the Buckeyes to make a run for the national title next season.

McCartney
Meyer. So they can't go to a bowl game. The defensive front figures to be one of the nation's best behind defensive tackle Simon, and while the offense lacks for playmakers outside of Miller, the athletic QB should thrive in Meyer's system. The Buckeyes should be a lock for nine wins.

Glicksman
Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State. Auburn's former offensive guru may not coach a high-profile program, but that doesn't mean he can't be a Sun Belt sensation. His tactics could help quarterback Ryan Aplin, who accounted for 4,176 yards in 2011, become even more electrifying, and turn the Red Wolves, which finished 10-3, into an even more dangerous non-AQ threat.

Rubin
Meyer. There's one downside to winning 10 games in a debut season without bowl eligibility: The only acceptable result in 2013 will be a 13-0 mark and a national championship.
 
A Bold Prediction
 
QB Sean Renfree :: Getty Images
Mandel
Duke, benefitting from 16 returning starters -- including veteran quarterback Sean Renfree -- and a mostly unimposing ACC Coastal Division, will reach a bowl game for the first time since 1994.

Staples
Six teams finish with one loss, prompting the conferences left out of the BCS title game to mount a campaign to start the playoff a year early. After a hefty payoff to the BCS bowls by ESPN, the playoff's start date is moved from the 2014 season to the 2013 season. (A guy can dream, can't he?)

H. Anderson
The Pitt Panthers will, with teeth clenched at season's end, accept a third consecutive bid to the BBVA Compass Bowl -- which they will play under the same permanent head coach they entered the season with! Clutch those pearls!

L. Anderson
Alabama running back Eddie Lacy will lead the SEC in rushing and earn a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. If you're looking for a player not on the Heisman radar to come out of nowhere and win the award a la Baylor's Robert Griffin in 2011, Lacy could be your man.

McCartney
Jeff Tuel will break every major Washington State passing record. In his first year under Mike Leach look for the senior to re-write the Cougars marks, including the single-season records for yards (3,968) and touchdowns (34) -- both of which belong to Ryan Leaf. Leach's teams averaged 4,966 yards and 40 touchdowns during his tenure at Texas Tech.

Glicksman
A player from South Carolina will be invited to the Heisman ceremony, but it won't be workhorse running back Marcus Lattimore. Coming off a precocious freshman effort, 6-6 pass-rushing demon Jadeveon Clowney will put up monster numbers -- leading the nation in sacks and forced fumbles -- and spur an Ndamukong Suh-like awards season campaign.

Rubin
Iowa running back Damon Bullock makes it through the entire season without getting hurt, arrested or suspended. Forget bold -- that's downright batty.
 
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