Buckeyes take lead in 2013 Top 25

Originally Published: April 29, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The NFL draft is over, giving college football coaches around the country another reminder of the star players they'll be missing this fall.

Spring practice has finished at most college campuses, and coaches will head into the summer knowing their teams' strengths and weaknesses.

There's a new No. 1 in the third edition of the 2013 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25. Ohio State, which went 12-0 in coach Urban Meyer's first season, jumps two-time defending national champion Alabama for the top spot. I'm not saying the Buckeyes are a better football team than the Crimson Tide; I'm saying Ohio State has an easier path to an undefeated record this coming season.

Also moving up: Oregon, Louisville, South Carolina and Michigan.

Moving down: Stanford, Texas A&M, Florida and LSU.

Say hello to USC and Wisconsin. Say goodbye to Oregon State and Vanderbilt.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Previous rank: 3
In case you haven't noticed, Urban Meyer still hasn't lost a game as Ohio State's coach. Now, here's the scary part for the rest of the Big Ten: the Buckeyes might be more talented and face a much easier schedule in 2013 than they did last season, when they went 12-0 in Meyer's first season at OSU. Yes, the Buckeyes have to replace most of their front seven on defense, but Meyer and his staff have recruited very well to rebuild that side of the ball. Sophomore defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington look like future stars; they combined for seven sacks in OSU's spring game. Michael Bennett and Tommy Schutt emerged as potential difference-makers on the interior defensive line, and Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry look like they might be able to help at linebacker. Quarterback Braxton Miller's work with passing guru George Whitfield also seems to be paying off; he completed 16 of 25 passes for 217 yards in the spring game. Another perfect season isn't out of the question for OSU in 2013. It doesn't play Nebraska or Michigan State during the regular season and gets Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State at home. Sure, the Buckeyes might have to defeat an SEC opponent to win a BCS National Championship, but Meyer already has proved he's capable of doing it.

For more on how the Buckeyes' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Ohio State's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Previous rank: 1
After winning back-to-back BCS titles, Alabama probably brings back the most talented team and most accomplished coaching staff in the country. But the Crimson Tide can't win a BCS national title every season, can they? They must replace three starters on their offensive line and replace a couple of key guys on defense, including nose tackle Jesse Williams and safety Robert Lester. Coach Nick Saban was happy with his first-team offensive line, which included new center Ryan Kelly, right tackle Austin Shepherd and left guard Arie Kouandjio, during spring practice. On defense, end Jeoffrey Pagan and nose guard Brandon Ivory emerged as new starters. Alabama's offense is going to be more explosive with quarterback AJ McCarron, tailback T.J. Yeldon and receivers Christion Jones and Amari Cooper coming back. Its defense is always one of the country's best units with coordinator Kirby Smart running the show. If the Tide can survive their first two games -- against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta on Aug. 31 and at Texas A&M in the SEC opener on Sept. 14 -- they will have another good chance at running the table.

For more on how the Tide's recruiting class is shaping up, check out Alabama's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

3. Oregon Ducks

Previous rank: 5
The Ducks shouldn't slip much after offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich replaced former coach Chip Kelly, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ducks are still going to run a hurry-up, "blur" offense, and with quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back De'Anthony Thomas and receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison coming back, they'll continue to score a ton of points. Oregon must replace both starting guards and rebuild its linebacker corps, but there's certainly enough talent and depth to win another Pac-12 championship. But the NCAA might ultimately determine whether Helfrich will go through his first season as a head coach like Meyer did in his first season at Ohio State, when the Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA sanctions. Oregon and NCAA officials have reportedly agreed that the Ducks committed a major violation during Kelly's tenure, although they disagree on whether Oregon committed a major violation by improperly receiving scouting reports from a Texas-based recruiting middleman. The Ducks are expected to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions sometime this summer.

For more on the Ducks' recruiting class, check out Oregon's spring wrap Insider.

4. Louisville Cardinals

Previous rank: 8
Is there a hotter athletics department in the country than Louisville right now? The Cardinals are coming off a 33-23 upset of Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a men's basketball national championship and a trip to the women's basketball Final Four. With 19 starters coming back in football, including Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals are more than capable of duplicating last season's success. Bridgewater picked up where he left off in the spring game, completing 16 of 20 passes for 214 yards. Louisville has added more weapons around him, including Florida transfers Robert Clark and Gerald Christian and tailback Dominique Brown, who sat out last season with a knee injury. The Cardinals might not be the country's fourth-best team based on talent and depth, but which opponent is capable of unseating them in the depleted Big East? Louisville plays a soft nonconference schedule (Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky and Florida International) and its Big East road games will be played at Temple, South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati.

For more on the Cardinals' recruiting class, check out Louisville's spring wrap Insider.

5. Stanford Cardinal

Previous rank: 2
With quarterback Kevin Hogan and one of the country's best offensive lines coming back, the Cardinal might be the favorites to return to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. But don't be surprised if Stanford looks much different on offense than it did during the past two seasons under coach David Shaw. With star tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo leaving for the NFL draft, Stanford put more emphasis on its wide receivers during spring practice. Young receivers like Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield showed they can stretch the field, and Ty Montgomery is healthy after battling injuries last season. Receiver Jordan Pratt, a 28-year-old former pitching prospect with the Los Angeles Dodgers, also was very impressive this spring. Running back Tyler Gaffney, who spent last season playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates' Class A affiliate, returned to Stanford this spring. Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson will try to replace departed tailback Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 1,530 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2012.

For more on the Cardinal's recruiting class, check out Stanford's spring wrap Insider.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

Previous rank: 4
Sure, SEC opponents might be more prepared to slow down Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel in his second season in the league. But shouldn't Johnny Football be more prepared to run the Aggies' spread offense in his second year as a starter, too? With perhaps the country's deepest stable of running backs and receiver Mike Evans coming back, the Aggies aren't going to have problems scoring points this coming season. Freshman receiver Ja'Quay Williams and tight end Cameron Clear also look like they'll be able to help right away. There wasn't much of a transition this spring after offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left to become Texas Tech's new coach. But defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has to replace seven starters, including star linebacker Sean Porter and defensive lineman Damontre Moore. Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders should take over Porter's spot, and Snyder hopes Julien Obioha, Brandon Alexander and Tyrell Taylor can emerge as consistent pass-rushers.

For more on how the Aggies' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Texas A&M's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

7. Georgia Bulldogs

Previous rank: 6
See if you've heard this one before: Georgia's season might ultimately be decided by its first two games. The Bulldogs open the season Aug. 31 at Clemson and then play South Carolina in their SEC opener at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 7 (they play LSU at home on Sept. 28). In 2011, UGA lost its first two games against Boise State and South Carolina before rallying to win its next 10 games en route to a 10-4 record. Last season, UGA started the season with a softer schedule and won its first five games before finishing 12-2. Georgia's offense might have to be very explosive out of the gate in 2013, as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham tries to rebuild a defense that lost nine starters, including star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins, sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and freshman safety Tray Matthews gave Grantham some hope coming out of spring practice. Quarterback Aaron Murray came back for his senior season, along with sophomore tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. UGA scored a school-record 529 points last season and might be just as explosive this coming season.

For more on how the Dawgs' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Georgia's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

Previous rank: 10
With quarterback Connor Shaw recovering from offseason foot surgery, Dylan Thompson took all of the snaps with the No. 1 offense during spring practice. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier seems to have enough confidence in both of them to go with another quarterback rotation this coming season. At least Spurrier has identified a couple of possible replacements for his departed star players: sophomore Mike Davis looks like the heir apparent to tailback Marcus Lattimore and sophomore Shaq Roland emerged as a big-play receiver after Ace Sanders left early for the NFL draft. The Gamecocks also are going to be very young on defense; they must replace all three linebackers and two defensive backs. Linebacker Cedrick Cooper and safety T.J. Gurley are expected back from knee injuries before the start of preseason camp.

For more on the Gamecocks' recruiting class, check out South Carolina's spring wrap Insider.

9. Michigan Wolverines

Previous rank: 12
The Wolverines' offense will look a lot different with quarterback Devin Gardner under center this coming season. Michigan fans caught a glimpse of the pro-style offense coordinator Al Borges wants to run in the final five games of 2012, when Gardner replaced injured starting quarterback Denard Robinson. The Wolverines spent the spring installing the rest of their pro-style offense. The good news: guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis have improved enough to stabilize the interior offensive line and receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh emerged as big-play threats. The bad news: A tailback didn't emerge as Fitz Toussaint continues to recover from a broken leg. Also, backup quarterback Russell Bellomy suffered a torn ACL in his knee during spring practice and will undergo surgery this week. He'll miss the entire 2013 season, making Gardner's health a priority.

For more on how the Wolverines' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Michigan's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Previous rank: 9
The Fighting Irish went into spring practice looking for more offensive playmakers, after they averaged only 25.8 points during their 12-1 season in 2012. Quarterback Everett Golson made some strides as a passer, but the Irish are still looking for a dependable tailback and still haven't shored up the middle of their offensive line. Notre Dame lost starting center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr.; Conor Hanratty and Mark Harrell are battling for the guard spot, while Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty are competing at center. George Atkinson III left spring as the No. 1 tailback, but he'll be pushed in the fall by incoming freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. The Irish will probably again be carried by their defense, so it had to be promising to see junior Jarrett Grace step into the inside linebacker spot vacated by All-American Manti Te'o.

For more on how the Irish's recruiting class is shaping up, check out Notre Dame's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

11. Florida Gators

Previous rank: 7
Florida's defense -- ranked fifth best among FBS schools last season -- carried it to an 11-2 record in 2012. The Gators remained a work in progress on offense, averaging only 26.5 points and ranking 118th in passing with 146.3 yards per game. Coach Will Muschamp can't be too encouraged by his offense's progress during spring practice. The Gators had so many injured offensive linemen that they all but had to cancel their spring game; five incoming freshmen join 10 scholarship linemen this spring. While quarterback Jeff Driskel made some strides under offensive coordinator Brent Pease in 2012, he still hasn't taken complete ownership of the offense. There's also a dearth of receivers at UF; Muschamp plans to have cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy play both offense and defense this coming season. With so many defensive stars like tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins moving on to the NFL, can UF's defense carry the load again in 2013?

For more on the Gators' recruiting class, check out Florida's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

12. Clemson Tigers

Previous rank: 11
The Tigers say they'll play even faster on offense in 2013 with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins coming back. But it's Clemson's defense that might make a big difference this coming season. Last season, the Tigers were one of the country's most improved defenses in the second half of the season; they allowed only 4.9 yards per play in their final seven games. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney hopes he's found a star pass-rusher in defensive end Vic Beasley, who had 10 sacks in four spring scrimmages. On offense, receivers Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant emerged as potential playmakers, which would take some pressure off Watkins after star DeAndre Hopkins moved on. The Tigers also have to be more consistent running the football, and "Hot" Rod McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks are the top candidates to carry the ball.

For more on the Tigers' recruiting class, check out Clemson's spring wrap Insider.

13. Texas Longhorns

Previous rank: 14
Longhorns coach Mack Brown is again implementing big changes, as his offense will go with a no-huddle, shotgun attack with a much faster tempo this coming season. Brown believes it's the best way for the Longhorns to survive in the fast-paced Big 12, and it's the offense that junior quarterback David Ash seems most comfortable running. The Longhorns still want to remain balanced on offense, so tailbacks Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown will still get their fair share of carries. Brown also believes UT's defense, which ranked 73rd nationally in scoring defense (29.2 points per game) last season, will be more equipped to defend hurry-up offenses after seeing one in practice every day.

For more on how the Horns' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Texas' spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

14. Florida State Seminoles

Previous rank: 16
There were plenty of changes at FSU this spring: an overhauled coaching staff, new defense and new quarterback. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston looks like the winner at quarterback after he completed 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game. He mastered the offense this spring, despite splitting time with FSU's baseball team. After Winston's spring game performance, junior Clint Trickett announced he's transferring (he's already visited West Virginia and USF and might visit Michigan and Auburn). New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a former Alabama assistant, installed a defense that looks a lot like the Crimson Tide's. Defensive ends are dropping into coverage, linebackers and defensive backs are blitzing and cornerbacks are jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. Pruitt also moved safety Lamarcus Joyner to cornerback, linebacker Karlos Williams to safety and tight end Dan Hicks to defensive end.

For more on how the Noles' recruiting class is shaping up, check out Florida State's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

15. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Previous rank: 20
The Cowboys are undergoing a facelift on the sideline, as well, as coach Mike Gundy has a new offensive coordinator (Mike Yurcich) and defensive coordinator (Glenn Spencer). Spencer, the team's longtime linebackers coach, is promising a more aggressive defense than what the Pokes ran under former coordinator Bill Young. Spencer inherits an experienced defense -- 13 of the top 27 players on the defensive depth chart are seniors. Gundy and Yurcich must also settle on a starting quarterback with three players coming back who have started games under center. Clint Chelf seems to have the edge for the starting job after completing 17 of 34 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown in the spring game. But J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt also remain in the competition, and Gundy said he won't name a starter before the Aug. 31 opener against Mississippi State.

For more on the Cowboys' recruiting class, check out Oklahoma State's spring wrap Insider.

16. LSU Tigers

Previous rank: 13
Under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who spent part of last season with the Baltimore Ravens, the Tigers anticipate throwing the ball down the field more often. That will be a welcome change at LSU, which ranked 94th nationally in passing last season with 200.5 yards per game. Senior Zach Mettenberger has a strong arm and should be better in his second season as a starter. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 236 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game. He has a couple of big-play weapons in receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and the Tigers bring back another deep stable of running backs in Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Terrence Magee, who has moved back from receiver. The key for LSU in 2013 will be rebuilding its defense, but there's still plenty of talent on that side of the ball, if not nearly as much depth.

For more on how the Tigers' recruiting class is shaping up, check out LSU's spring wrap Insider and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.

17. Oklahoma Sooners

Previous rank: 15
The Sooners have to settle on a starting quarterback (all signs point to Blake Bell replacing record-setting passer Landry Jones), but their biggest concerns are still on the defensive side of the ball. OU coach Bob Stoops admitted this spring that defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (his brother) might have underestimated the strength of Big 12 offenses in his first season back in the league. Now, the Sooners have to replace most of their defensive front and three starting defensive backs. Bob Stoops feels pretty good about the secondary after cornerback Cortez Johnson and safety Gabe Lynn emerged during spring practice. Bell passed for 213 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game, but Kendal Thompson and Trevor Knight will continue to push him throughout preseason camp.

For more on the Sooners' recruiting class, check out Oklahoma's spring wrap Insider.

18. TCU Horned Frogs

Previous rank: 17
The Horned Frogs learned plenty while finishing 7-6 in their first season in the Big 12. They know defense is still their strength, after leading the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 323.9 yards per game. The offense struggled without quarterback Casey Pachall, who was suspended from the team after four games because of off-field issues. After spending time at an alcohol and drug treatment facility, Pachall rejoined the team in January. He hasn't been named the Horned Frogs' starting quarterback for this coming season, but he seems to have an edge over sophomore Trevone Boykin, who went 3-6 as a starter in 2012. The Horned Frogs bring back 17 true freshmen who played last season, as well as 21 of their top 23 defenders.

For more on the Horned Frogs' recruiting class, check out TCU's spring wrap Insider.

19. UCLA Bruins

Previous rank: 21
After three consecutive losses spoiled what had been a breakthrough season under new coach Jim Mora, the Bruins went into the spring trying to shore up their pass protection, as well as rebuilding their secondary and finding a new running back. The Bruins should be better on the offensive line with more depth. UCLA allowed 52 sacks last season, second worst in the Pac-12. Quarterback Brett Hundley is a much more polished passer, and if he gets better protection he might be even more productive than last season. UCLA has to replace Johnathan Franklin, the school's all-time leading rusher, but Mora might elect to do it by committee. Tailbacks Steven Manfro (shoulder) and Damien Thigpen (knee) were recovering from injuries this spring, so Jordan Jones, Paul Perkins and walk-on Malcolm Jones took the majority of snaps. The secondary took a big blow when starting safety Tevin McDonald was dismissed from the team in March. UCLA also lost starting cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester.

For more on the Bruins' recruiting class, check out UCLA's spring wrap Insider.

20. Kansas State Wildcats

Previous rank: 19
Kansas State is renovating Bill Snyder Family Stadium this spring, and the Wildcats' venerable coach is rebuilding his football team, too. The Wildcats must replace quarterback Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, and eight defensive starters. All four defensive linemen must be replaced, as well as linebacker Arthur Brown, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Kansas State had nine midyear transfers, including juco defensive end Devon Nash, linebacker Dakorey Johnson and cornerback Nate Jackson, who might be asked to help immediately. Quarterback Jake Waters, who was the national juco offensive player of the year at Iowa Western Community College, is battling sophomore Daniel Sams for the starting job. The good news: The Wildcats bring back their entire offensive line and tailback John Hubert.

For more on the Wildcats' recruiting class, check out Kansas State's spring wrap Insider.

21. Boise State Broncos

Previous rank: 22
The Broncos went into the spring trying to replace a few key parts on defense. Boise State ranked No. 5 in the country in pass defense (169.5 yards per game) and No. 8 in scoring defense (15.8 points) last season, and having two lockdown cornerbacks was a big reason it fared so well. But Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins both exhausted their eligibility, so the Broncos have to find two new starting cornerbacks. Junior Bryan Douglas and sophomore Donte Deayon look like the next players in line, but Douglas missed the spring while recovering from a torn ACL and Deayon missed part of the spring with a sprained ankle. Juco cornerback Cleshawn Page was pretty impressive this spring, and four more cornerbacks -- juco transfer Mercy Maston and freshmen Jonathan Moxey, Dionza Blue and Cameron Hartsfield -- join the competition this fall. Juco defensive tackle Deuce Mataele was a big surprise this spring with two tackles for loss in the spring game.

For more on the Broncos' recruiting class, check out Boise State's spring wrap Insider.

22. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Previous rank: 23
Besides producing the most heartwarming image of the spring -- 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman scoring a touchdown in the spring game -- the Cornhuskers set out to rebuild their defense. Only four starters are coming on defense, and defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returning starter on the front seven. After allowing 115 points in two postseason losses last season, the Cornhuskers are going to have to rely on a lot of freshmen in 2013. Nebraska fans couldn't have been encouraged when coach Bo Pelini called his defense "mentally weak" at the start of spring practice. But the defense was playing better by the end, although it certainly remains a work in progress going into the summer. Ankrah and redshirt freshmen Avery Moss and Greg McMullen emerged as the top defensive ends, although juco transfer Randy Gregory figures to play a big role once he joins the team. Defensive tackle is also a big concern; the Cornhuskers moved 310-pound offensive lineman Brodrick Nickens to defensive tackle this spring.

For more on the Huskers' recruiting class, check out Nebraska's spring wrap Insider.

23. USC Trojans

Previous rank: NR
After a disappointing 7-6 season in 2012, the Trojans continued to battle limited scholarships and injuries this spring. USC coach Lane Kiffin didn't name a starting quarterback after sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler and freshman Max Browne battled for the job in the spring. Kessler was the most impressive during the spring game, completing 15 of 22 passes for 242 yards with three touchdowns. He probably goes into the summer with a slight edge, although Kiffin listed all three quarterbacks as co-starters on the post-spring depth chart. The good news was sophomores Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell emerged as big-play weapons at receiver, which should take some pressure off Marqise Lee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner. Agholor caught seven passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game, while Blackwell had seven catches for 155 yards with one touchdown. Freshman Justin Davis also emerged as a co-starter at tailback, after Silas Redd missed much of the spring with a knee injury.

For more on the Trojans' recruiting class, check out USC's spring wrap Insider.

24. Northwestern Wildcats

Previous rank: 24
The Wildcats, who went 10-3 last season and won their first bowl game since 1949, went into spring practice needing to rebuild their offensive line, where three starters have departed. But injuries curtailed their efforts, as tackles Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgensen and guard Matt Frazier missed the spring because they were hurt. In fact, injuries caused coach Pat Fitzgerald to cancel Northwestern's spring game; the Wildcats had an open practice for fans instead. The Wildcats have plenty of firepower coming back on offense, including their quarterback combination (Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian) and tailback Venric Mark, who ran for 1,366 yards with 12 touchdowns. Backup running back Malin Jones was a bright spot in the spring and might be a factor this fall.

For more on the Wildcats' recruiting class, check out Northwestern's spring wrap Insider.

25. Wisconsin Badgers

Previous rank: NR
Former Utah State coach Gary Andersen spent his first spring in Madison, Wis., installing a new 3-4 defense and trying to sort out his team's quarterback battle. Senior Curt Phillips and Joel Stave emerged as the favorites, with Phillips perhaps having a slight edge going into the summer because Andersen has preferred mobile quarterbacks in the past. But juco transfer Tanner McEvoy joins the competition this summer, and Andersen has said he'll be given a chance to win the job. The Badgers also dealt with myriad injuries in the spring, including several on both lines. The Badgers must replace their top two offensive linemen from 2012: left tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick. Freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who enrolled in January, was one of the biggest surprises in the spring.

For more on the Badgers' recruiting class, check out Wisconsin's spring wrap Insider.

Mark Schlabach | email

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