THE 2013 Championship is on the horizon with every team around the country now preparing to embark on their respective campaigns.
Whilst some teams will still be knocking around come early autumn, for others their summer journey will be cut short. Donegal emerged from the doldrums following the appointment of Jim McGuinness in 2011 and brought Sam back to the north west for the first time in 20 years last year.
So can they defend their title and who can knock them off the perch?
Jimmy McGuinness has been consistent in his approach to the National League, openly declaring a lack of interest in contending for the title. Relegation will have brought a dose of reality for 2013 and Donegal will need to find the same desire, discipline and hunger if they are to defend their All-Ireland title.
Having talked the talk all winter, the next few weeks will show whether they will match the same intensity levels as their last two campaigns.
Fitness levels will have been worked on over the last few weeks which will give Donegal options in terms of their style of play. Expect a combination of direct early ball to Michael Murphy and a high intensity running game with defenders attacking from deep in a structured manner.
Donegal lack strength in depth and have been missing keys players such as Karl Lacey and Paddy McGrath throughout the league. Any cracks in their armour will be exposed and if they lose their shape or discipline they will be knocked off their pedestal.
You cannot underestimate the ability of their manager to get the team right so not unlike Dublin in 2012, I expect Donegal to be in the shake-up at the latter stages of the championship but they will have to go through the backdoor.
Dublin go into this year's championship as the bookies favourites based on their National League form. Jim Gavin has set out his stall utilising the talents at his disposal playing a brand of football based on quick movement of the ball and committing numbers to attack.
The return to form of Bernard Brogan together with a rejuvenated Paddy Andrews and emergence of Paul Mannion has provided Gavin with an array of attacking options. Ciarán Kilkenny is just returning from injury and Dean Rock also showed his worth in the recent league final.
Gavin will know he needs more ball winning ability in midfield and a re-positioning of Paul Flynn to midfield with Michael Darragh Macauley would just provide some stability in that area. Dublin are the team to stop this year and they will be studied and analysed in great detail by Messrs Harte, McGuinness and Fitzmaurice.
It will be Gavin's ability to adapt their game-plan in the heat of championship football that will decide whether Dublin can bring Sam back to the capital. Whilst many still worry about 'minding the house' defensively, it would be great for Gaelic football if Dublin can win Sam playing an attractive brand of football.
This is the most talented Dublin squad that has been put together in my lifetime and they remain the team to beat in 2013.
Nobody has ever questioned the ability within this Mayo team but the 'monkey' is still very comfortably situated on the back of this team.
Whether we like it or not, we all have regrets in sport and James Horan must still have sleepless nights wondering what might have been, if he had afforded his full-back line with extra protection in the first 10 minutes of last year's All-Ireland SFC decider.
Mayo have recovered well but no one knows how deep the scars are from their recent experiences in Croke Park and the two league defeats to Dublin will not have helped matters. Mayo are well organised, will not lack hunger and will be boosted by the return of their marquee forward Andy Moran and also Alan Dillon both from injury.
Mayo could be a small bit vulnerable in Salthill this Sunday with Galway looking to ambush their provincial hopes but I would expect Horan's men to prevail and open up a path to Croke Park.
Mayo are genuine contenders in 2013 but the lack of top class finisher could be their downfall once again.
Kerry are like a wasp floating above their prey waiting to attack and sting for the very last time before they die off. The recent league campaign recently showed that there is clear lack of strength in depth in the Kingdom and the lack of underage success has come back to haunt them.
If Eamon Fitzmaurice can keep his squad injury free Kerry will be a dangerous animal to meet as the summer progresses. A Munster Final appearance will more than likely guarantee a place in the last-eight and when Kerry get to Croker Park in August their experience will be a crucial factor.
They still possess serious quality up front and the relocation of Colm Cooper to centre-forward as playmaker will freshen up their attacking style.
Kerry will take a big scalp somewhere along their path this summer but a lack of pace in their ageing defence could be the rock they will perish on in latters stages of August or September.
Kieran McGeeney is his sixth year as manager of Kildare and at this present time he probably has his strongest panel available than any time during his tenure. Victories against Donegal, Mayo, Cork and Kerry in the National League were probably overshadowed by a collapse to Dublin by a margin of 13 points in headquarters.
McGeeney has introduced a number of his U21 team with great success throughout the league with Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn and Paul Cribben all making the transition to the senior ranks seamlessly. The injection of youth certainly indicates that the future is bright in Kildare but recent collapses and heavy championship defeats leaves them brittle in terms of their mental preparation.
Kildare's young guns may find the cauldron of Croke Park against the Dubs too much to handle and the backdoor route beckons for another year. Will be last-eight contenders once again and on a good day they can compete with the best.
Mickey Harte is still the best tactician in the modern game and after a difficult time personally over the last few years, he looks refreshed and in a better place ahead of this year's campaign. His energy and motivation is clearly reflected in his team's performances this year and with an injury-free panel Tyrone have a nice blend of youth and experience.
Tyrone showed against Dublin that they can adapt their game-plan and develop systems of play to counteract their opposition's strengths.
Their opening game against the All-Ireland champions, Donegal, could define their season. Tyrone's key men must stay injury free as they are very reliant on the excellence of Stephen O'Neill and the power and pace of Seán Cavanagh attacking through the central channels for scores.
Niall Morgan's ability to pick off long-range frees could play a role in picking off crucial scores whilst implementing their traditional defensive style of play.
Not as good as the team of the last decade but will they have to be as good is the question that remains unanswered. Could be still contention come September.
Cork gave the impression in this year's league that they were not overly concerned with success after winning three league titles ina-row (2010-'12). Was it that they were not bothered or have they gone a bit flat and stale under the guidance of Conor Counihan?
The latter may be the more accurate observation as they continue to lack the structure and required work-rate to bring Sam back to the banks of the Lee.
In terms of raw talent, they still possess enough quality to be in contention come September but it really depends on what Cork team turns up on any given day. The absence of their marquee forward Colm O'Neill will be sorely felt but a return to form by Daniel Goulding and Ciarán Sheehan up front will be key to any chance of success.
Counihan has tampered with the structure of his team throughout the recent league playing a defensive game at times with limited success and Cork need to develop a consistent approach to play to their strengths. Will have their hotel booked for the August Bank Holiday quarter-final weekend but anything beyond that remains up in the air.