Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone: Analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the Big Four
If the odds are to be believed, it's pointless looking beyond Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone for this year's All-Ireland football winners.
Tyrone are the outsiders (8/1) in that group and then there's a wide gap to Donegal (28/1), Galway and Cork (33/1 each). It's disappointing that the field is strung out so far behind the market leaders but, on the basis of recent years, that's the reality.
Even among the top four, who will tonight re-enact last year's All-Ireland semi-finals, there are different perspectives. All Dublin's boxes appear to be ticked, which is great at one level. However, history shows that most great empires looked at their strongest just before the collapse.
Mayo are the most consistent second-placed finishers in championship history, not a description they relish and certainly not one this group want as an epitaph at the end of their careers.
There's always a belief in Kerry that the next All-Ireland is one they will win but do they currently have the capacity to deliver on that traditional confidence? And are Tyrone a major force in the making or a squad that has reached a plateau, which is as high as they get?
How do they all fare under SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) test conditions ahead of their showdowns in Omagh and Castlebar tonight?
Their stats since Jim Gavin took over at the start of 2013 make the most impressive reading in football history.
Titles won: 13 (4 All-Ireland, 5 Leinster, 4 Allianz League)
Games: 76; Wins 61; Draws 8; Defeats 7.
Similar to Kilkenny hurlers in their golden era, the depth of Dublin's squad is hugely significant in keeping them ahead of main rivals. And, so far at least, there is no sign that the emerging talent flow is slowing down.
Add in the confidence that so much success brings, plus their residency in Croke Park for all the big championship games, and their 'strengths' column is jammed.
If resilience won All-Ireland titles, Mayo, rather than Dublin, would probably be bidding for a four-in-a-row. Predictions of their demise flourished when Galway beat them in the 2016 Connacht semi-final in Castlebar and resurfaced when they suffered a similar setback in Pearse Stadium last year.
Yet, in both years, they recovered and reached the All-Ireland final, twice losing by a point and also drawing with Dublin. Their capacity to remain stubbornly defiant after suffering so much misery is a massive strength.
The green-and-gold jersey is a good start. It won't win games on its own but it carries an aura which can be important against opposition - and that includes most counties - who have a bad record against Kerry.
They also score heavily on emerging talent after producing so many excellent underage teams in recent years. David Clifford and Seán O'Shea are already on their way and Eamonn Fitzmaurice will blood others also. Quite right too - it's time to refresh.
It was hard for supporters to spot many strengths in Tuam Stadium last Sunday when Galway restricted them to 0-8, with only 0-3 coming from open play.
Still, Tyrone are better than that and are far more accomplishment too than their capitulation against Dublin last August suggested. Being hard to beat has always been an impressive quality under Mickey Harte so a few bad results doesn't change everything.
The 'weaknesses' column has a lot of empty spaces. And yet, that could be a weakness in itself since there are no guarantees that what worked in the past will be as effective in the future. The manner in which Mayo have stood up them has provided a template for others to follow, assuming that they are good enough.
Kerry are integrating youngsters into their team so why can't Mayo? Up to this year at least, the long-established players have been sure of retaining their places because the younger generation weren't good enough to oust them. That's not healthy.
Mayo have rightly received lots of credit for their durability but the fact remains they have no title to show since 2015 (Connacht) and are relying essentially on most of the same players. Also, their failure to close out the All-Ireland deal can't help their state of mind.
What if the young brigade are not as good as Kerry supporters think? It wouldn't be the first time that pinning high hopes on underage success ended in disappointment.
Kerry need quite a few youngsters to step up to the senior ranks pretty quickly, especially in defence, which has been suspect for quite some time. And while it would be wrong to judge too much into their first league game, the problems persisted last Sunday when Donegal scored 3-14.
Kerry still won, but there was little to suggest the defensive issue is about to be resolved.
How much damage did the mauling by Dublin inflict? There wasn't a single positive to take out of Croke Park, leaving the season a total anti-climax, despite having retained the Ulster title.
Their four championship wins came against Ulster opposition, which is not anywhere nearly as strong as it used to be.
Tyrone's tactics have come under question, even if there's nothing wrong with them if the players are good enough. But are they? And where are the leaders?
They are six championship wins away from becoming the first team since Kerry in 1978-'81 to win the All-Ireland four-in-a-row. That's a gilt-edged opportunity to achieve something really special, one that will define everything they do this year.
The four-in-a-row chance fell Dublin's way only once before, but after reaching the 1924 final, they came up a point short to Kerry. On a more modest scale - certainly by Dublin's current standards - they have a chance (certainty?) to win an eighth successive Leinster title.
Winning the All-Ireland is obviously the big priority but what about the earlier opportunity to make a statement? Winning the Allianz League title would be a significant boost, banishing the perception that, for whatever reason, they cannot win finals. Dublin pursue the league with real intent every year so why not Mayo?
Further on, the chance to win the Connacht title needs to be taken in order to avoid facing the qualifier circuit for a third successive year. They survived it twice but a third attempt might be too much.
There are many who believe that if Dublin are to be beaten, Kerry will be their conquerors. Psychologically, Kerry are always well-equipped to take on successful Dublin teams and would relish a chance to end their four-in-a-row ambitions.
This year offers a big opening for Kerry's young stars to make an impact and for their older players to be invigorated by the fresh energy around them.
They have a good chance of achieving a Munster milestone as the first Kerry team to win the provincial six-in-a-row since Micko's marvels did it in 1980.
Even the great Tyrone team that won All-Ireland titles in 2003 and 2008 failed to win an Ulster treble so the current group will create history if they retain the title this year. That might look like a relatively modest achievement at a time when All-Ireland glory is high on the agenda but since they won no Ulster title until 1956, they would treasure their first treble.
History is against them. Only Wexford in 1914-'18, Kerry in 1929-'32 and 1978-'81 have won the four-in-a-row. Jim Gavin won't allow the past to intrude as a negative influence but the closer Dublin get to the four-timer, the greater the pressure. This is new territory and irrespective of how well prepared Dublin are, there's no way of knowing how they will react.
The threat level comes in two strands. Galway have beaten them in the last two years so they will head for Castlebar on May 13 with a confident mindset.
If Mayo lose to Galway, it would take nine games to win the All-Ireland.
Granted, they reached the final via the long route over the past two years but it would be asking an awful lot to do for a third time.
If Mayo win Connacht, the on-field threats will be same as in other years, only heightened by the psychological dimension, arising from having lost so many finals.
Threat No 1: Maybe the young talent (a) isn't as good as it looked at underage and (b) even if it is, how long will it take to make an impact at senior level?
Threat No 2: Cork have beaten Kerry only once (2012) in their last ten SFC games so, on the law of averages, they are due a win (provided, of course, that they both qualify for the Munster final).
Cork would have home advantage after playing in Killarney in recent years while Páirc Uí Chaiomh was being redeveloped.
the defeat by Dublin last August done serious damage? Tyrone appeared to be building something really solid, only to have it shaken to its foundations.
Also, Seán Cavanagh's retirement robs the team of its main leader, leaving a void that won't be filled in the short term at least.