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

There is anticipation but for sure, there is also anxiety.

Sunderland start their fourth attempt at winning promotion from League One against a Wigan Athletic side whose summer moves for a core of last season’s side will provide a stern test of the Black Cats’ credentials.

It will undoubtedly be a special afternoon on Wearside.

Though the Lincoln City semi final provided an emotional return for 10,000 supporters in May, the attendance this weekend is set to be at least triple that.

Sunderland head coach Lee JohnsonSunderland head coach Lee Johnson
Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson
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All over the city old routines and bonds will be restored, all in the hope of better days ahead.

Can Lee Johnson’s side provide them?

On the back of pre-season there are reasons for optimism and reasons for caution.

The style of play looks to be improving considerably as Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman begin the first stages of the squad overhaul, and there have been impressive performances from a number of youngsters who look set to break through in the current campaign.

If there is understandable reservation then it stems from the lack of depth in key positions, with Sunderland looking certain to start the campaign with no recognised full back options.

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Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus have stressed that they will not overspend, or commit to long-term contracts that could cause the club problems in the years to come.

So supporters wait in the hope for additions in the closing weeks of the window, and that Johnson can find the combinations to ensure the season begins with positive results.

Sunderland’s task is all the harder given that this looks to the most competitive third tier line-up since the Black Cats first dropped back to this level in 2018.

So where will those key threats come from?

Phil Smith runs you through his pre-season predictions….

The frontrunners

A major summer programme of investment means that Ipswich Town are, for good reason, the early title pick for most.

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They have spent heavily on proven League One talent, including the likes of Scott Fraser and Joe Pigott. The addition of Rekeem Harper in midfield has the potential to be the bargain of the summer.

They look certain to be strong contenders, with the only uncertainties being how look it takes their revamped XI to gel, and how Paul Cook will be affected in the long run by former assistant Leam Richardson's decision to lead Wigan Athletic's promotion charge.

Surprisingly low down in the bookmaker's lists are Rotherham United, whose record at this level is firmly established.

With the core of Paul Warne's squad still in place, and with the impressive addition of Ollie Rathbone this week, they will once again be a team no one enjoys playing against.

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As it stands, they look to be the side with the best overall squad blend.

The chasing pack

One side who you would expect to contend once again is Oxford United.

Though they have perhaps not quite caught the headlines in the same way as some other clubs this summer, they have kept the core of their squad in plce and a flurry of very strong signings earlier this week showed their intent is still strong. Gavin Whyte's return is a major boost, while Nathan Holland and Jordan Thorniley look very solid additions at the back.

A slow start cost them dear last time out but they look far more settled this time around, and that could be key.

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And while one or two influential loanees have departed, you'd expect that element of continuity to also serve the very impressive Lincoln City well.

Michael Appleton is bound to have found another gem or two in the loan market and for that reason, I'm putting these two clubs slightly ahead of Wigan Athletic at the moment.

Richardson's side have undoubtedly recruited well and will be very competitive, but at the moment their defensive options are threadbare and as such, some element of transition seems inevitable.

While Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth may not have made many significant transfer moves this summer, the management of Nigel Adkins and Danny Cowley means both will be around the play-off places once again.

The ones to watch

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Perhaps the team hardest to get a read on at this stage is Sheffield Wednesday.

In Darren Moore they have an excellent manager at the level, while some of their incoming business has been impressive in terms of the reputation of those they've been able to bring in.

The club seems to be more settled off the pitch than they were during an acrimonious relegation, but how they will bounce back from that remains to be seen.

A week or so ago, MK Dons would have been the team seen as the most likely to upset the more established names in the division.

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After a season of transition, they looked to have both the identity and the quality to mount a serious tilt at the top six.

Russell Martin's departure for Swansea City so close to the beginning of the campaign is a major blow, even if the new appointment will benefit from what looks to have been an excellent summer window.

Accrington Stanley have had another good window, but it looks like it will be harder than ever to compete at the top of the table this year.

Automatic Promotion: Ipswich Town, Rotherham United

Play-offs: Sunderland, Oxford United, Lincoln City, Charlton Athletic

Relegated: AFC Wimbledon, Cambridge, Morecambe, Plymouth

Top Goalscorer: Freddie Ladapo

Manager of the Year: Paul Warne

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