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Abstract:We define a notion of "non-backtracking" matrix associated to any symmetric matrix, and we prove a "Ihara-Bass" type formula for it. Previously, these notions were known only for symmetric 0/1 matrices. We use this theory to prove new results on polynomial-time strong refutations of random constraint satisfaction problems with $k$ variables per constraints (k-CSPs). For a random k-CSP instance constructed out of a constraint that is satisfied by a $p$ fraction of assignments, if the instance contains $n$ variables and $n^{k/2} / \epsilon^2$ constraints, we can efficiently compute a certificate that the optimum satisfies at most a $p+O_k(\epsilon)$ fraction of constraints. Previously, this was known for even $k$, but for odd $k$ one needed $n^{k/2} (\log n)^{O(1)} / \epsilon^2$ random constraints to achieve the same conclusion. Although the improvement is only polylogarithmic, it overcomes a significant barrier to these types of results. Strong refutation results based on current approaches construct a certificate that a certain matrix associated to the k-CSP instance is quasirandom. Such certificate can come from a Feige-Ofek type argument, from an application of Grothendieck's inequality, or from a spectral bound obtained with a trace argument. The first two approaches require a union bound that cannot work when the number of constraints is $o(n^{\lceil k/2 \rceil})$ and the third one cannot work when the number of constraints is $o(n^{k/2} \sqrt{\log n})$.