Last season, League One was something of a split division.
Plymouth Argyle missed out on the top six with a whopping 80 points, while Fleetwood Town stayed up with merely half that tally.
After a period in which Burton Albion, Shrewsbury Town and Wycombe Wanderers had all been able to win or challenge for promotion against the odds, underdog stories are starting to run a touch thin in our third tier.
This season, so far, has been slightly more unpredictable than the last, with newly-promoted Exeter and Port Vale occupying top half berths along with Shrewsbury – though the trio are five points off the play-offs.
Elsewhere, MK Dons, Oxford United and Wycombe are sides who have been in contention for promotion in recent seasons, yet all three currently find themselves in the bottom half.
The disparity between the top and bottom is not quite as stark as it was in 2021-22, yet equally it’s difficult to see one of the low-budgeted clubs ruffling the regulars.
Plymouth Argyle and Ipswich Town look the smart picks for automatic promotion, despite the latter’s injury-time chaos at Charlton last time out.
If the two high-flyers maintain their current PPG returns of 2.38 and 2.18 respectively, then they will amass three-figure points hauls.
Argyle need to get one or two back from injury to make sure they stay on course, as well as keeping on-loan stars like Bali Mumba and Finn Azaz beyond January.
While Town must eradicate some of the defensive issues that have plagued them in recent weeks – shipping six goals in their last two outings is attest to that.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to see either dropping significantly below their existing levels, so Peterborough United, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday will need to find consistency.
The Posh still have the core that took them up from this level in 2020-21 – Nathan Thompson, Frankie Kent, Dan Butler, Jack Taylor and Jonson Clarke-Harris all still at London Road.
Add to those an infusion of young talent like Ronnie Edwards, Harrison Burrows, Kwame Poku and Ephran Mason-Clark, and Grant McCann’s side are looking healthy.
With one win in seven, Pompey are in something of a rut due to injuries in midfield, desperately needing a fully fit Tommy Lowery, Marlon Pack or Joe Morrell.
But, once two of those three get to the required level, Danny Cowley’s side could be a serious force yet again (Pompey won six league games on the spin between August and September).
Sheffield Wednesday can’t be ignored, either. It’s just one defeat in nine for the Owls, who possess arguably the strongest squad in League One on paper.
Darren Moore’s side were four goals ahead against Burton Albion on Saturday, staving off the Brewers’ miniature fightback and ultimately winning 4-2.
But had that game not gone to plan, then the management team could have called upon the likes of Jack Hunt, Will Vaulks, George Byers, Alex Mighten, Josh Windass and Lee Gregory to freshen things up from the bench.
For almost any other team in the division, either of those players would be the first name of the teamsheet, which highlights the embarrassment of riches available.
It’s difficult to see either of the aforementioned five teams finishing outside the top six, so it could be that only one play-off spot is open to multiple teams.
Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford United would need approximately two points per game between now and May to make the play-offs, and it’s hard to imagine either finding that level of consistency, even with a fully fit squad.
Exeter City, Shrewsbury Town and Port Vale would realistically be delighted to finish the season where they are, while a top six jaunt would see a little fanciful for Lincoln City and Bristol Rovers – despite some eye-catching performances.
With that in mind, it could be a case of Bolton Wanderers, Derby County, Barnsley and Charlton Athletic vying for sixth spot.
Wanderers might be considered closer to the automatic conversation were it not for an iffy October, in which 1-0 away defeats to Gloucestershire strugglers Cheltenham and Forest Green has hindered their progress.
A 3-1 home defeat to fellow contenders Oxford will have been another stumbling block. Nonetheless, Ian Evatt’s side may have the edge over their competitors.
Paul Warne’s Rams are reliant on moments of magic from David McGoldrick, Conor Hourihane and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, but they still look a little imbalanced at times.
And it’s a similar story for the Addicks, under the stewardship of Ben Garner.
Scott Fraser, Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, Charlie Kirk and Chuks Aneke are all highly capable, but they didn’t get the players head coach Garner wanted in the summer and are still trying to hone a system that can work with the imperfections.
Barnsley are a weaker proposition going forward without Luke Thomas, who is out for four months, and their squad is such that individual losses hit them harder than the equivalent for some of their competitors.
Michael Duff’s side beat Forest Green 2-0 last time out, but had failed to score in each of their previous four league encounters.
Unlike the Championship, where it’s difficult to recognise a pattern for the season let alone make many predictions, League One does appear to have settled.
Ipswich and Plymouth Argyle look good for the top two, Bolton will beat their divisional rivals to reach the play-offs, but Portsmouth with a fit midfield will win them, in my opinion.
The Cowley brothers have won five promotions in their managerial career so far, as well as experiencing the heat of the play-offs with National League part-timers Braintree in 2015-16.
Their high-stakes experience and big game pragmatism could count for a lot come the business end of the campaign.
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