Phil Smith's League One predictions and the teams most likely to challenge Sunderland for automatic promotion

Welcome to the League One season that increasingly feels as if it will be like no other.

Friday, 11th September 2020, 12:45 pm

Phil Parkinson's first pre-match press conference took place on zoom and with uncertainty increasingly prevalent in the air.

In terms of Sunderland, Parkinson cut a typically relaxed figure.

Encouraged from what he has seen in pre-season, and satisfied with the transfer business done after a challenging summer in which the club's recruitment team was overhauled and the salary cap rules moved the goalposts in an instant.

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Phil Parkinson is determined to secure automatic promotion for Sunderland this season

It has been another summer dominated by takeover talk but as of yet, it does not seem to have impacted on Parkinson's work in the way it did for Jack Ross a year ago.

Parkinson, though, could not hide his concern at the news that the return of fans to stadiums from October 1st could be delayed.

The details are not yet clear and thus it is unwise to speculate, but all know playing behind closed doors is simply not sustainable for any length of time in Leagues One and Two.

No matter how this season begins, that will be the clould that hangs over everything.

For Sunderland themselves, the question is whether they are finally ready to take the next step and establish themselves as an automatic promotion team.

Parkinson's record since taking charge hovers just below the two points-per-game ratio, and his record at his level over a period of time is established.

Aside from the disappointing departure of Jon McLaughlin, he has kept the core of his side in place and so a top-six finish is the minimum most would expect.

Defensively they look strong in personnel and record, and so the debate, as ever, is whether there are enough goals and attacking variety to maintain top-two pace.

Aiden O'Brien and Danny Graham look good additions so far, but Parkinson as it stands will still surely need a strong goalscoring campaign from Will Grigg.

The frontrunners

Sunderland's main challengers look set to be the usual suspects.

It is to the benefit of a number of teams who just missed out last year that Barnsley and Luton Town were able to escape the drop from the Championship in the closing weeks of the last campaign.

They would have returned to the third-tier strong and experienced but in their place, the teams relegated all face uncertainty to a degree.

As such, it is hard to look past Peteborough United as the early favourites.

They were in superb form before lockdown and though Ivan Toney has left, their business looks strong.

The money raised from Toney means they were one of the only clubs able to really invest. Jonson Clarke-Harris is an excellent addition up front and adds a different option to their attack.

The purchase of Sammie Szmodics, meanwhile, is inspired. He's a player of serious talent for this level and having been on loan at the club last season, will be ready to hit the ground running.

One of the more interesting teams to follow this season will be Portsmouth.

Kenny Jackett's position as manager is a source of fierce debate amongst the fanbase, frustrated at two similarly near misses to Sunderland and his preferred style of play.

Most neutrals, though, expect them to be strong.

Their record after an indifferent start last season was exceptional, and they have kept the core of that group in place.

Jackett needs a fast start or the pressure will rise quickly.

The chasing pack

Joey Barton will no doubt present his side as the underdogs again this campaign, but there can be no disguising the fact that it is another summer in which he has been backed to the hilt by Fleetwood Town owner Andy Pilley.

Mark Duffy and Callum Camps are both tremendous additions, and if Charlie Mulgrew follows as expected, then that will address their one current deficiency. At the heart of defence, they look light as things stand, with the outstanding Harry Souttar returning to his parent club Stoke City.

Hull City underwhelmed on their visit to the Stadium of Light last week but their summer additions are players of real quality, while Oxford United play football as good as anyone in the league on their day.

Both will challenge, while Ipswich Town's individual quality will surely shine through, whether or not that is under current boss Paul Lambert.

Ones to watch

Blackpool's squad looks to be one that will excite. They have pace, craft and goals in abundance. What they don't have, at the moment at least, is defensive depth.

Charlton Athletic's hopes, meanwhile, rely on the resolution of the ongoing ownership saga.

They have a decent starting XI and in Lee Bowyer, a manager who has established himself as one of the best outside the Premier League, performing admirably in three difficult years.

At the moment, they don't have a squad capable of coping with the punishing schedule ahead. A new owner in time tomake additions before the window shuts is key.

And what chances of a Wycombe Wanderers-style charge from nowhere?

Ryan Lowe's Plymouth Argyle are a team with talent and a style to keep a close eye on, and there were signs in the latter stages of last season that Steve Evans' Gillingham were becoming a fairly consistent unit. At this stage, though, they look very short of goals up front.

Automatic Promotion: Peterborough United, Portsmouth

Play-offs: Sunderland, Fleetwood Town, Oxford United, Ipswich Town

Relegated: Rochdale, Northampton Town, Wigan Athletic, Shrewsbury

Top Goalscorer: Matty Taylor (Oxford United)

Manager of the Year: Ryan Lowe