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Processing the Numbers | The Big Fiesta Bowl Preview

The other semifinal looks like a classic in the making

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN.
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

The Other Semifinal

We’re almost there, folks. First up, we need to talk about the other semifinal between the ACC Champion Clemson Tigers and Big Ten representative Ohio State Buckeyes. This year, that game is the Fiesta Bowl, contested per usual at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The game will be on Saturday, December 31st, at 6 PM CT / 7 PM ET, and will be televised on ESPN. If for some reason you’re tired of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, make sure to check out some of the other broadcasting options ESPN is making available for these games.

The Résumé — Clemson

API 42.7% (8) 19.0 (11) 0.181 (8) 20.1 (11) 34.9 (34) 17.1 (7)
LOUISVILLE 40.9% (11) 21.7 (7) 0.151 (17) 22.6 (6) 42.2 (2) 19.9 (15)
FLORIDA STATE 39.7% (13) 19.5 (9) 0.154 (16) 21.5 (9) 40.4 (6) 21.0 (18)
VIRGINIA TECH 26.9% (21) 10.8 (24) 0.131 (20) 13.2 (23) 31.5 (50) 21.2 (20)
PITTSBURGH 25.9% (24) 10.5 (26) 0.125 (22) 13.0 (24) 40.5 (4) 29.3 (66)
NC STATE 18.4% (37) 9.7 (28) 0.067 (48) 7.4 (44) 31.2 (55) 20.1 (17)
GEORGIA TECH 13.1% (46) 5.3 (50) 0.068 (47) 6.7 (49) 33.2 (44) 28.9 (61)
TROY 6.2% (54) -0.5 (65) 0.075 (44) 0.3 (72) 26.7 (82) 28.2 (54)
WAKE FOREST -7.4% (72) -1.2 (72) -0.043 (78) 0.9 (66) 21.4 (112) 23.3 (28)
SYRACUSE -18.2% (92) -5.7 (90) -0.090 (94) -3.0 (81) 29.6 (68) 34.6 (99)
BOSTON COLLEGE -18.4% (93) -5.3 (88) -0.095 (96) -1.8 (78) 16.6 (125) 21.7 (21)
SOUTH CAROLINA -18.9% (94) -6.9 (93) -0.083 (92) -0.5 (74) 20.9 (117) 28.2 (52)
AVERAGE 12.6% 6.4 0.053 8.4 30.8 24.5

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

  • Average F/+ Opponent: Nebraska (F/+ #47)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: San Diego State (S&P+ #46)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Wyoming (FEI #51)
  • Average FPI Opponent: UCLA (FPI #39)
  • Average Offense: Wisconsin (OS&P+ #57)
  • Average Defense: Western Kentucky (DS&P+ #35)
  • Best Win: API (F/+ #8)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 4 (API, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech)

This is not a bad schedule! All of Clemson’s FBS opponents fell within the top-100 of the F/+ rankings, and seven fell within the top-50; their average opponent’s rating is closest to Nebraska at F/+ #47. The bottom kind of drops out at the end of the schedule — Syracuse, Boston College, and South Carolina were all putrid this year — but the slugfests at the top of the card against API, Louisville, and Florida State easily balance that out. Nice spread, some solid out-of-conference competition — a good schedule.

Of particular note are the ratings of Pittsburgh — the one team that beat them — which are right around #25 overall. That’s a game Clemson probably should have won based on the relative strength of the teams, but in hindsight it’s not a terrible loss. That API win looked better and better as the season wore on, particularly considering it was a road win. The defensive slate was pretty tough at an average DS&P+ of 24.5, which was the second-lowest rating in the playoff field. The offensive slate was solid at 30.8, which is the lowest among the playoff field. That’s kind of odd considering some of the elite offenses in the ACC, but the low end of the schedule includes some of the country’s very worst units on that side of the ball.[1]

1 | Might be different one day at Wake and Boston College; probably not without a coaching change at South Carolina.

Similarity — Ohio State
  • Rushing Offense: Florida State (Rush OS&P+ #6)
  • Pashing Offense: Syracuse (Pass OS&P+ #57)
  • Rushing Defense: API (Rush DS&P+ #12)
  • Passing Defense: Virginia Tech (Pass DS&P+ #11)

As we’ll discuss shortly Ohio State’s offensive profile is a little one-dimensional, which is probably the biggest negative for them heading into the playoff. The closest comp on the ground to the Buckeyes was Florida State, which does not bode well for the Tigers — Florida State lit them up for 5.8 yards per carry, the worst mark of the season for Clemson. That’s after 56 yards were removed for sacks, so it’s more like 6.4 yards a carry. The majority of that production came courtesy of Dalvin Cook, of course, who is one of the country’s elite talents at running back and a singular threat that the Buckeyes really can’t duplicate. Regardless, look for a big day from J.T. Barrett and/or Mike Weber on the ground.

The outlook through the air is less rosy for the Buckeyes, as Clemson’s defense is definitely built to stop the pass. Among FBS teams that actually throw the ball,[2] nobody was less effective against the Tigers than the Orange. Three interceptions, 4.3 yards per attempt, and a measly 81.12 passer rating does not a successful outing make. Barrett is more talented than Eric Dungey but his production on the season is only marginally better, to the degree both quarterbacks would be considered average as passers.

2 | That is, not Georgia Tech.

The defensive matchup is a little less lopsided, even with Ohio State’s “basic” defense.[3] Neither of these comps are particularly favorable or unfavorable for the Tigers — they won’t roll over the Buckeyes, but they won’t be shut out either. Deshaun Watson had a decent outing overall against the Hokies, throwing only one interception against three touchdowns, with a good average and completion percentage; the Buckeyes are ranked several spots ahead of the Hokies in Pass DS&P+, however, so this may not be one of Watson’s better games. Wayne Gallman had an average performance against API, picking up a career-high 30 carries but at just 4.1 yards a clip. A quick peek at the play-by-play for that game suggests it wasn’t a product of running out the clock either — he picked up 34 yards at over 6 yards a carry in Clemson’s final drive of that game. Clemson’s ground game is not quite as polished as it was a year ago, and trying to move the ball on the ground may not be the best choice for this matchup.

3 | Here’s a thought — don’t give talented coaches easy motivation for their teams!

The Résumé — Ohio State

MICHIGAN 63.8% (3) 31.3 (2) 0.257 (3) 27.8 (3) 36.1 (26) 5.1 (1)
PENN STATE 42.1% (9) 17.0 (12) 0.197 (6) 17.9 (12) 35.6 (29) 20.0 (16)
OKLAHOMA 41.6% (10) 19.2 (10) 0.171 (14) 21.8 (8) 47.0 (1) 28.4 (57)
WISCONSIN 39.9% (12) 15.8 (16) 0.192 (7) 17.8 (13) 30.8 (57) 15.3 (5)
TULSA 15.4% (44) 5.8 (47) 0.084 (40) 7.1 (48) 35.3 (30) 29.6 (67)
NORTHWESTERN 14.3% (45) 5.4 (49) 0.079 (42) 7.7 (41) 29.8 (67) 23.3 (27)
NEBRASKA 12.2% (47) 8.2 (34) 0.030 (56) 7.8 (40) 30.2 (62) 22.4 (25)
INDIANA 3.7% (58) 5.4 (48) -0.017 (64) 0.7 (68) 29.9 (66) 23.5 (30)
MICHIGAN STATE 1.1% (61) 3.1 (54) -0.014 (63) 4.2 (59) 29.1 (71) 26.5 (42)
MARYLAND -19.6% (97) -5.3 (87) -0.109 (100) -1.7 (76) 26.9 (81) 30.9 (82)
RUTGERS -43.8% (123) -16.5 (120) -0.199 (122) -11.9 (108) 15.1 (127) 30.0 (71)
AVERAGE 15.5% 8.1 0.100 9.0 31.4 23.2

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

  • Average F/+ Opponent: Minnesota (F/+ #43)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Toledo (S&P+ #35)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Minnesota (FEI #49)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Houston (FPI #38)
  • Average Offense: Utah (OS&P+ #53)
  • Average Defense: Northwestern (DS&P+ #27)
  • Best Win: Michigan (F/+ #3)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 3 (Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin)

So, this whole situation with Ohio State not being the conference champion has thrown a monkey wrench into things. As you know, the Big Ten does not permit scheduling of FCS schools anymore, so typically we drop the lowest-rated opponent from a Big Ten school to compensate for the FCS game their opponent played, which does not get factored into the advanced stats. However, Ohio State was not a title game participant for the Big Ten, so they actually played the same number of FBS games as Clemson[4] did —a new wrinkle to deal with this season.

4 | And Alabama and Washington.

I think an argument could be made to not adjust their schedule at all, but I’m sticking with precedent and dropping their lowest-rated opponent. However, I made a slight adjustment and dropped their lowest-rated out of conference opponent (F/+ #110 Bowling Green) instead of Rutgers. The difference is minor, but I think the out-of-conference opponent is a better analogue to an FCS school than a weak in-conference game.

With that out of the way, digging into the schedule reveals some interesting things about Ohio State’s season. The Michigan game really pushed the average F/+ rating of their schedule up, as the stats were in love with the Wolverines from the get-go. In fact, Michigan was an outlier from the schedule overall, and was the chief reason the Buckeyes finished with the best defensive slate (DS&P+ average of 23.2) and FEI rating (0.100) of the playoff field.

From there, however, the quality gets a little murkier. The Oklahoma and Wisconsin wins are good ones, and after the championship run Penn State made to close out the season, that’s arguably the best loss of the field.[5] Beyond those four games, however, the schedule nosedives in a hurry, with a handful of slightly tougher outs rapidly giving way to the very dregs of the conference. The Big Ten East was somewhat bipolar this year, with three of the best teams in college football rubbing shoulders with two of the worst, plus whatever Sparty was and something called an “Indiana”. Almost… uh… defecating the bed against Michigan State is not a great look either, but you do not get to this point in the season with this kind of record and not face a few close calls along the way.

5 | Among the teams that had a loss, that is…

Similarity — Clemson
  • Rushing Offense: Tulsa (Rush OS&P+ #39)
  • Pashing Offense: Wisconsin (Pass OS&P+ #10)
  • Rushing Defense: Penn State (Rush DS&P+ #27)
  • Passing Defense: Wisconsin (Pass DS&P+ #16)

First, the good news: Tulsa did not have a very good afternoon against the Buckeyes, particularly on the ground. The Golden Hurricane managed just 61 yards on the ground that day, an average of just 1.65 yards a carry. Gallman and Watson will be more successful than that, but as noted earlier this is not a great matchup for the Tigers’ rushing offense. The Wisconsin comparison is not as encouraging, however, as that was easily the Buckeyes’ worst outing of the season in that phase of the game. This is a good group against the pass though, so “worst outing” was 214 yards and a 125.98 passer rating, which would be an unmitigated success if they could replicate that effort against Watson.

Next, the less good news: it’s tough to find a poor rushing performance from this offense, but the one they had against Penn State comes fairly close. 4.2 yards a clip is not bad, but for a team averaging 5.5 yards a carry, it’s a pretty steep drop. The Nittany Lions executed a furious comeback in the fourth[6] to win the game, but the only reason it was possible for them to do that was how severely they limited the Buckeyes offense on the afternoon.

6 | Including a kick six! If only the playoff had come a year earlier…

Lastly, the bad news: not a great matchup for Barrett here. Wisconsin allowed a middle-of-the-road performance through the air for the Buckeyes, but this is one of those situations where the closest comp is not necessarily a good one. Clemson’s pass defense is among the country’s best — slightly ahead of Ohio State’s, in fact — and running the ball is the preferable option given the matchups.

The Goods

F/+ 55.5% (4) F/+ 66.3% (2) OHIO STATE
FPI 25.8 (5) FPI 28.1 (2) PUSH
FEI 0.253 (5) FEI 0.295 (2) PUSH
S&P+ 22.7 (4) S&P+ 27.6 (3) PUSH
Home Spread 3 OHIO STATE

OFEI 0.93 (10) DFEI 1.28 (2) PUSH
OS&P+ 39.4 (11) DS&P+ 13.1 (3) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 112.7 (33) Rush DS&P+ 122.8 (17) OHIO STATE
Pass OS&P+ 130.6 (8) Pass DS&P+ 132.0 (5) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 123.2 (7) SD DS&P+ 129.5 (5) PUSH
PD OS&P+ 119.4 (22) PD DS&P+ 123.2 (17) PUSH
OALY 121.1 (7) DALY 137.2 (2) PUSH
OASR 261.8 (2) DASR 88.7 (92) CLEMSON

DFEI 0.71 (11) OFEI 1.04 (7) PUSH
DS&P+ 16.1 (6) OS&P+ 39.2 (12) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 110.9 (32) Rush OS&P+ 136.9 (2) OHIO STATE
Pass DS&P+ 132.2 (4) Pass OS&P+ 104.9 (54) CLEMSON
SD DS&P+ 106.3 (39) SD OS&P+ 123.3 (6) OHIO STATE
PD DS&P+ 159.8 (2) PD OS&P+ 113.3 (38) CLEMSON
DALY 113.7 (20) OALY 137.4 (1) OHIO STATE
DASR 168.2 (4) OASR 94.8 (78) CLEMSON

ST S&P+ -0.5 (85) ST S&P+ 1.5 (6) OHIO STATE
NFP 2.6 (31) NFP 5.2 (14) OHIO STATE
STE 0.0 (62) STE 0.02 (55) PUSH
FGE 0.12 (57) FGE -0.03 (77) CLEMSON
KE 0.09 (34) KRE 0.06 (26) PUSH
PE -0.07 (87) PRE -0.05 (94) PUSH
PRE -0.14 (111) PE 0.21 (10) OHIO STATE
KRE 0.02 (38) KE 0.01 (84) CLEMSON

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of December 28th, 2016.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index, the Clemson Profile, and the Ohio State Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

No big surprises here. You don’t make the playoff unless you belong here, and the major argument in favor of Ohio State’s inclusion over the team that both beat them and won the Big Ten is that the Buckeyes were simply the better team overall. The stats support that, as Urban Meyer’s crew settled firmly into the consensus #2 slot after beating the Wolverines. The Tigers are fourth or fifth depending on which flavor of ranking you prefer, and while they lag behind the Buckeyes in all four measures of overall quality, the differences are slight. The one exception is in F/+, where the Buckeyes’ margin is just large enough to be significant. Vegas has the spread at 3 points in favor of Ohio State, which, conveniently enough, is squarely in between what FPI and S&P+ say about it. Funny how that works.

When Clemson Has the Ball

As we covered up in the schedule portion of the article, this isn’t the best matchup Clemson could have hoped for, but it’s not a particularly bad one either. Ohio State has an edge all the way down the line, but for the most part it’s not a significant one. You would think the mass exodus from Columbus in the offseason would have resulted in this defense taking a step back, but by just about any measure this group is appreciably outperforming 2015. The DS&P+ rating is nearly three points lower, yards per game allowed is down 30 or so yards, yards per play is a quarter yard lower, etc. Somehow this group lost Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, and Adolphus Washington, and got better.

Well, for the most part. The pass rush has taken a significant step back, which is understandable given 15 sacks walked out the door at the end of last season. Sam Hubbard produced 6.5 sacks a year ago as a freshman but is down to just three so far this season. That dropoff produces the one statistical edge Clemson has on offense, as they have the #2 overall ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate, a full 90 spots ahead of Ohio State’s below-average rating. The Tigers’ line has lost a few pieces from last season, but they’ve put up better ratings in both ASR and Adjusted Line Yards this year. Ohio State still has some real monsters up front — Tyquan Lewis has replicated his outstanding production from a year ago, and Bosa’s younger brother Nick doesn’t even start and is still second on the team in sacks — but Watson will likely have plenty of time to work from the pocket in this one.

And boy does he have an enviable array of toys to play with through the air. The only loss from last year’s receiving corps was Charone Peake, but in his place stepped Mike Williams, who lost the entire 2015 season due to a neck injury. Prior to that he was Watson’s favorite target, and he’s capably returned to that role in 2016, leading the team with 84 receptions for 1171 yards on the year. Many consider Williams the top wide receiver prospect for the 2017 NFL draft, and his battles against Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore will go a long way toward determining Clemson’s chances in this game. Of course, if the Buckeyes manage to bottle Williams up, they still have to deal with Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, and senior tight end Jordan Leggett. In other words, expect Watson to get his one way or another.

Do not, however, expect too much out of Gallman. The NFL-bound junior’s efforts this season have fallen well short of what he was able to do in 2015, and as previously noted that doesn’t appear to be because of the line — despite the losses of Joe Gore and Eric Mac Lain to graduation, this year’s group has performed better statistically. This is a terrible matchup for Gallman and Watson on the ground, as the Buckeyes defense ranks 17th in the country against the rush per S&P+ and second overall in Adjusted Line Yards. The former is the only significant advantage the Buckeyes have on the board, and their advantage in the latter is larger than it may otherwise appear based on rankings alone.

The outcome on this side of the ball will more or less determine Clemson’s chances in this game, as the less-than-stellar defensive matchups indicate they may need to put up a lot of points to keep pace with the Buckeyes offense — this is not a contest where they can win with defense. The easiest path to victory would be a Watson performance reminiscent of last year’s championship contest, where the junior’s timely and effective rushing and pinpoint passing forced theretofore unseen special teams wizardry[7] from the Tide in order to tilt the game in their favor. If it’s more of the Watson from last year’s playoff semifinal against Oklahoma,[8] the Tigers will be in a lot of trouble, because Watson and Gallman will not put up 300 yards rushing on this defense.

7 | And game-breaking play from the tight end.

8 | 16/31, 187 yards, 1 TD 1 INT.

When Ohio State Has the Ball

The overall ratings from this section of the chart and the previous two underscore why the anticipation for this game is so high — there’s nary an edge to be found, until you look at things a bit more granularly. On this side of the ball, neither team is particularly bad at anything — the closest is probably Ohio State barely above average performance in the passing game, and even that is still above average. However, both teams have weaknesses, and those weaknesses happen to line right up with the opponent’s strengths.

Namely, Clemson excels at defending the pass,[9] but Ohio State loves to run, and they happen to be among the country’s best at doing so. That young line that played so well in 2014 has now gained a couple of years of experience, and produced the country’s top mark in Adjusted Line Yards in 2016. That’s allowed freshman back Weber and all-purpose threat Curtis Samuel to capably replace the production of the departed Ezekiel Elliott, with assistance from increased carries for Barrett relative to the 2015 campaign. While not quite the juggernaut the 2014 Buckeyes were on the ground,[10] they were good enough for the #2 overall rating in rushing S&P+. Given Clemson’s solid but unspectacular defense on standard downs and against the run, and Ohio State’s penchant for running early and often,[11] expect to see the Buckeyes run straight at the Tigers front from the get-go.

9 | They’ve had a lot of practice, too — their opponents run rates on both standard and passing downs are among the country’s lowest marks.

10 | That group average 265 yards a game at 5.8 yards a carry.

11 | Their standard down rush rate is a shade under 65%, which is well above the national average.

Hopefully that works for them, because the matchup through the air is not a great one. Barrett in year three is very much a running quarterback, as his numbers are relatively pedestrian this year. During his injury-aborted freshman campaign, Barrett averaged 9 yards per pass attempt throwing to the likes of Devin Smith, Michael Thomas, and Jalin Marshall. They’ve all since moved on, and Barrett’s average has fallen a full two yards in 2016, which is significant. His main target these days is Samuel, nominally a running back, who leads the team with 65 catches for 822 yards. The drop-off is steep from there, with receiver Noah Brown second on the team with 30 catches for 385 yards. None of that screams “elite passing offense”, and S&P+ agrees, placing the Buckeyes at 58th overall in passing S&P+. Part of the problem may be the line, in fact — as good as they are at run blocking, they are equally poor at pass protection, with a below-average rating in Adjusted Sack Rate.

Clemson, meanwhile, counters with one of the country’s finest pass rushes. The Tigers generated 46 sacks this year, good for second in the country,[12] and producing the #4 defensive front per Adjusted Sack Rate. The main names to keep in mind there, oddly enough, are tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, who lead the team with 8.5 and 6.5 sacks, respectively. When they don’t get to the quarterback, the country’s eighth-most productive secondary in terms of interceptions lurks, led by senior defensive backs Jadar Johnson and Cordrea Tankersley. Basically, there’s no obvious way to attack this defense through the air, which is why they’ve put up the #4 rating in passing S&P+.

12 | Before the bowls, anyway — Boston College’s annihilation of Maryland’s QB has them tied for first at time of writing.

Much like the passing matchup on the other side of the ball, Clemson’s chances rest on their ability to slow down the Buckeyes’ rushing attack. Succeed in doing so, and it takes a lot of pressure off the offense to make up the difference. Fail, and it’s hard to see where Clemson wins the game.

Special Teams

Meyer’s teams tend to excel on special teams, and this group is no exception. They have a significant edge in both S&P+ and FEI’s Net Field Position ratings, although FEI’s Special Teams Efficiency rating calls it a push. The only real name from this group is Cameron Johnston, the outstanding senior punter from Ohio State who was a Ray Guy Award finalist and second-team All America selection. That’s Ohio States lone big edge among the FEI efficiency ratings, as Clemson has one of the least-effective punt return units in college football. Johnston doesn’t get a tremendous amount of work — he hasn’t quite punted 50 times this year — but he’s among the country’s most effective punters when he does kick, with an average of 46.2 yards a punt. That’s great news in the event Clemson’s defense is able to shut them down with any regularity.

Aside from that, it’s pretty much a wash. Scott has had a nice year returning kickoffs, and the Tigers have an edge in that respect. Neither field goal kicker is particularly good by this metric, but Clemson has a slight edge there as well. That might be a factor if this ends up as close as Vegas and the advanced stats think it will be.

Any intangibles to consider?

University of Phoenix Stadium is an indoor, so weather is not a factor. Hard to say whether the crowd will lean one way or the other — Ohio State fans are everywhere, but reportedly ticket sales are slow for this year’s Fiesta Bowl and fatigue amongst the OSU faithful may be a reason why. The financial implications are just as heavy for Clemson fans, however, and they might have shelled out for two postseason games last year. Hard to say how that will all shake out.

Injuries have hit both programs hard over the course of the season, but Clemson probably enters the game with more questions on this front. While some of the losses for Ohio State were more significant, the only question heading into bowl practice was with reserve receiver Corey Smith, who is currently probable for the game. Clemson, however, has five players in some sort of injury status heading into the game, including rotational linemen John Simpson and Richard Yeargin. As far as starters are concerned, both teams appear to be at full strength.

Finally, these two schools have only met twice in their history, with Clemson emerging victorious in both contests. The last matchup was in the 2014 Orange Bowl — you might recall that Ohio State was undefeated and headed to the BCS Championship Game that year until Michigan State beat them in the Big Ten title game, and Clemson poured salt in the wound with a 40-35 victory. That feels like a similar situation to what happened in 2008 and 2013 for the Tide, but clearly there’s more to play for this year for both squads.

The Picks

The narratives heading into this one take a number of forms — either Clemson is completely overmatched, Ohio State is about to be exposed, or we’re headed for an all-time classic. I’m leaning toward the latter, and I think Ohio State’s rushing attack is going to make the difference in a squeaker. Also, no offense to Dabo Swinney, but I’m not picking against Meyer with this much time to prepare.

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