Donegal can buck trend in race for top-flight honours
All-Ireland champions have a poor return rate in winning the subsequent Allianz NFL (only Cork in 2011 have completed the autumn-spring double since Meath in 1987/88), but that still doesn't fully explain why Donegal's odds are longer than three of the big shots they beat in last year's championship.
Seven points (from a possible 14) were enough to earn Mayo a semi-final place last year, and with this year's divisional campaign expected to be the most competitive for years, a similar return could well be enough to reach the last four again.
Eight points almost certainly will suffice, so surely Donegal are headed for the semi-finals, at which stage they would hardly start singing "Jimmy's not winning matches" and sign off without a fight. Once any team reaches a league semi-final, they have to go for it.
Besides, there's a full month between the league final and Donegal's clash with Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-final.
Tyrone would dearly love to win the league in order to weld the new and the old together in the most competitive environment available, prior to taking on Donegal. Mickey Harte needs no reminding that a league success in his first season as manager 10 years ago led to the most bountiful harvest ever enjoyed by Tyrone, so he will be driving a very ambitious agenda over the coming weeks.
Cork have won four successive league titles (three Division 1, one Division 2) since 2009, so it's now almost expected that they will be in Croke Park in late April.
However, there's an alternative view in Cork that they might be as well off not to be so conspicuously successful in spring and instead retain their best for later on. That should be dismissed for the nonsense that it is.
Cork's championship defeats in recent years have had nothing whatsoever to do with their league successes. Cork have a tough schedule (away to Dublin, Tyrone, Down and Kerry), but it will still be a major surprise if they don't make the semi-finals.
The same applies to Dublin, for two reasons. One, they are under new management, which will drive every player to extend himself to the limit in the hope of being inside Jim Gavin's cut-line for the championship panel. Two, they have five games at Croke Park, which is a massive advantage.
Dublin's development, post the 2009 championship wipe-out by Kerry, was based on a very focused approach to the league. Prior to that, Dublin had a long run of mediocre league campaigns, often giving the impression that they didn't really care very much about early-season results.
However, all changed following the shake-up which was forced on them by the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final embarrassment.
Dublin lost only two (to Cork and Galway in 2010) of 14 group league games in 2010-11, establishing a consistency that eventually set them up for All-Ireland glory. Perhaps significantly, they returned to indifferent league form last year (three wins from seven games) and never really fired up their championship season either.
Gavin will be trying to re-establish the 2010-11 culture over the next two months – hence the market reaction which has seen them zoom to the top of the betting lists.
Kerry rarely have a really bad league and now that, like Dublin, they are under new management, look likely to make the semi-finals too as they seek to impress Eamonn Fitzmaurice. The challenge is made harder by having four away games, but it's difficult to see them failing to reach the nine-point mark, which would definitely be enough for a top-four finish.
Mayo's consistency in the league is underlined by being the only county to remain in Division 1 for the last 15 years. It's quite an achievement, even if it didn't put down the required platform for All-Ireland success.
It's very difficult to predict how they will fare in this year's league. They will be at home for the first two games, an advantage they must exploit if they are to reach the last four as they will be away to Dublin and Down in their next two outings.
If Mayo lose to Kerry tomorrow, it would be no surprise to see them with a lot of ground to make up at the end of Round 4. They will extend their run in Division 1, but might miss out on a top-four spot.
Promoted pair Kildare and Tyrone face quite a challenge to stay in the top flight. Kildare's task is made all the greater by having only two games in Newbridge which, when coupled with the fact that Dublin will have five games in Croke Park, is bizarre.
Nor has the game spread been kind to Kildare, pitting them against Donegal, Cork, Kerry and Dublin in the first four outings. They will do well to take two points from that sequence.
Tyrone are away in their first two games, but would be hopeful of getting off to a good start against Down tonight. It's a crucial game for both as whoever gets ahead of the other at this stage is likely to remain there.
Semi-finalists: Cork, Dublin, Donegal, Kerry. Relegated: Down, Kildare.
Title odds: Dublin 5/2; Cork 11/4; Kerry 10/3; Donegal 7/1; Mayo 9/1; Tyrone 10/1; Kildare 12/1; Down 25/1.
Today : Dublin v Cork; Kildare v Donegal; Down v Tyrone; Tomorrow: Mayo v Kerry.
February 9 : Cork v Kildare; Donegal v Down.
February 10: Kerry v Dublin; Mayo v Tyrone.
March 2 : Dublin v Mayo. March 3: Tyrone v Donegal; Kildare v Kerry; Down v Cork.
March 9 : Down v Mayo. March 10: Donegal v Kerry; Kildare v Dublin; Tyrone v Cork.
March 16 : Cork v Donegal; Mayo v Kildare; Dublin v Tyrone; Kerry v Down.
March 23 : Dublin v Down. March 24: Kerry v Cork; Mayo v Donegal; Kildare v Tyrone.
April 7: Down v Kildare; Cork v Mayo; Tyrone v Kerry; Donegal v Dublin.