Phil Smith's League One predictions and the teams posing the biggest threat to Sunderland's promotion hopes
A year ago, Sunderland were very much entering the unknown.
An untested squad, a manager taking charge of his first game in English football, a new regime still settling in after a whirlwind summer.
What followed was a brutal, often enjoyable but equally frustrating campaign.
Twelve months on, Sunderland feels a more settled club.
Investment talk has continued and will continue, but two further transfer windows down the line, the squad has a more balanced look.
So how will Jack Ross and his team fare?
The Top Two
Stewart Donald was cautious in his pre-season predictions last year and rightly so.
This time, he has been far more bullish and the mood is firmly that this is the season to deliver.
It has been another summer with some element of uncertainty, takeover talk dominating the agenda as the current hierarchy also worked through the last remnants of the wreckage they inherited 12 months previous.
Ultimately, though, Ross has been able to make five smart additions that bring obvious improvements to the squad.
Extra pace and strength at the back, with Elliot Embleton’s encouraging progress raising the possibility of more midfield creativity.
A quiet pre-season in front of goal has been the main cause of concern for supporters, and getting Will Grigg firing is unquestionably one of the biggest tasks for Ross in the coming weeks and months.
Sunderland, though, look in good shape to kick on from last season’s near miss.
Their main contenders will likely include two sides dropping down from the Championship.
Rotherham have lost key players in Semi Ajayi and Will Vaulks, but have recruited well and know what it takes to succeed in this division. They punched well above their weight last year and will be dominant on home turf as they always are.
Ipswich Town are a more interesting case.
On the face of it, they have done superbly to keep together their best young talent after relegation, as well as retaining some experienced campaigners.
James Norwood is an outstanding signing up front and Paul Lambert remains popular.
Still, the noises have not been all positive and Lambert has made some pointed transfer remarks, bristling at some of the expectation. They will be a scalp this year and face many of the same challenges that Sunderland have found in this league.
They have great talent at this level, but much to prove.
It’s ultimately hard to look past Portsmouth, with or without Jamal Lowe.
If he stays, they have an exceptional battery of wingers and all the strength and experience elsewhere that you would expect from a Kenny Jackett side.
Even without him, they look well set and have recruited well following Matt Clarke’s departure, with Rangers loanee Ross McCrorie earning rave reviews for his pre-season displays.
After running of steam last year, it would be no surprise to see both the Checkatrade Trophy finalists take a very different approach to that competition as they look to finish in the top two.
The chasing pack
After an impressive return to League One, Coventry City would ordinarily be heavily fancied for a promotion push.
Losing Jordan Willis to Sunderland was a blow, but they have made some impressive signings and look to have a great blend of pace and experience.
Mark Robins is a superb coach but the great unknown is how they will respond to playing their home games at Birmingham City.
It is a major blow for the club’s supporters, though the way Robins has operated in turbulent times so far suggests he will still produce results.
Though Joey Barton mentioning Sunderland’s budget is certain at some stage, the Fleetwood boss has not been shy of investment this summer and will be under pressure to deliver. Paul Coutts and Danny Andrew are two big statements and their squad is one that ought to be pushing for the top six.
Peterborough chairman Darragh MacAnthony has been typically bullish in his pre-season assessments and he expects his side to deliver.
George Boyd was an eye-catching addition, but the focus has again largely been on young attacking talent. They have goals and creativity aplenty but whether they have found the right balance for a long season remains to be seen.
To keep an eye on
Luton Town showed last year that the gap from League Two can be bridged, so it is no surprise that Lincoln are heavily backed to impress.
The Cowley brothers have thrived on every challenge in their career so far, while Jorge Grant and Jack Payne are two of the most exciting signings made in the division. It will be fascinating to see how those two fare in a side that has a reputation generally for playing a direct style.
MK Dons, too, have recruited well and have more than enough individual talent to cause a surprise.
Blackpool have made some excellent additions, as have Shrewsbury.
Both have an outside chance of pushing the top six and it will be interesting to see how Burton Albion fare. At one stage, they looked like serious contenders for the top two after finishing the season so impressively. Their squad has been significantly weakened since then, with Marcus Harness, Jamie Allen and Kyle McFadzean all moving on.
Sunderland & Portsmouth
Rotherham United, Ipswich Town, Coventry City, Fleetwood Town
Bury, Bolton Wanderers, AFC Wimbledon, Southend
Will Grigg/Ivan Toney
Manager of the Year