The 2024 AFL season shapes as the longest planned season on record for the AFL since the league commenced play in 1897.

With 23 rounds of matches for each team, four weeks of finals and three byes dotted unevenly across the year, this season will stretch across almost seven months of the year.

Are we all ready for the long road ahead?

This season also may be one of the most fascinating in the AFL era. Four different sides have hoisted the premiership cup over the past four seasons. Only Geelong has appeared in more than one grand final in that time, but it missed the finals last year as defending premiers.

Last year’s grand final was an instant classic settled by less than a kick. That aped just how tight and congested the top end of the competition was last year.

The gap between the best and worst has continually shrunk in recent years, and it feels like any team can win on their given day. For all but two or three teams, realistic chances of contending for the flag exist.

Few predicted the rise of GWS at the start of last season, and fewer still were on board after the first two months. They ended just a kick away from the grand final.

Predicting what will happen during the next seven months is a folly, but let us have a shot anyway. 

Follow the leader

Two cap-wearing Collingwood AFL players smile at the camera as they hold their medals after a grand final win.

The Magpies start again as the team to beat in 2024.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

It is somewhat of a cliché, but it is also true: people try to model themselves after the best.

After Collingwood’s heart-stopping 2023 flag, teams will be adjusting their game on how to beat the Magpies.

This happens every year. Last year, teams looked more at midfield balance and how to stop the versatile Geelong attack. What is harder to pin down is what part of Collingwood’s game teams will try to counter, or even copy.

The most superficial element could be teams training late-game situations to mollify the Magpies’ stellar record in close matches. While clubs will likely be training more end-game scenarios, it is the other 98 per cent of the game that will be taking more focus.

A trend through preseason has seen teams utilising horizontal spacing more effectively to spread the ground in turnover transition chains of play. That is how Collingwood picked sides apart last year.

This works both ways: as a way to stretch opposition defence and to prepare for other sides to deploy the other way.

Other clubs will be looking at the sometimes messy ball coming from the front of contests that Collingwood often utilised, with territory over control being a priority.

Collingwood can get away with this due to its stellar defensive set-up. Other clubs may be less disciplined or talented down back.

The Magpies’ success without a traditional spearhead will also tempt sides into more unconventional structures up forward.

Sides have been increasingly willing to eschew historical set-ups in recent years and the Magpies’ success will give them even more leeway.

What the numbers say

It appeared there was very little that separated the competition heading into last season. Despite that tiny gap, it seems even tighter going into this year.

There is not an overwhelming favourite heading into the season, or even a side without question marks attached.

Injuries, tactical adjustments, stylistic match-ups and even the bounce of a single ball may be the details that help separate teams at the pointy-end of the season.

Here is ABC Sport’s predictions on the coming season, based on their fixture, their ‘Pythagorean’ record last year, predicted list improvement and list changes.

Given how tight it is, take everything with a grain of salt. Anything could happen this year, and probably will.

The congested pack

According to ABC Sport’s projections, just three wins separates Collingwood at the top and Geelong on the edge of the projected eight.

The gap between Geelong in eighth and Essendon in 15th is also around three wins.

That is extremely tight in footy terms and even more uncertain when predicting the future. In short, you could throw a blanket over them at this point.

There is a few more factors that make guessing what we are about to see even harder than years past. Teams will have more opportunity to adjust mid-season due to the length of the season and an additional in-season bye for some sides.

The old axiom that availability is the best ability is one that will likely play a major role this year as well.

A building consensus around footy circles suggests that player availability and injuries matter more than ever before.

The closeness of the competition is that a missing key player or two can put most teams in trouble, with three or more making life nigh on impossible.

It would not be a surprise at all if any of the top 15 teams listed above played finals. It might only be a mild shock if the bottom three teams find themselves in the mix late in the year, or at least claim a couple of victories over more hyped contenders.

A grand escape?

Two teams — North Melbourne and Hawthorn — have finished in the bottom six for the past four seasons. If you extend that grouping to the bottom seven, then Gold Coast joins them.

But the worst team over the past two seasons from a win-loss perspective is not even one of that group: it is last year’s wooden spooners West Coast.

Other teams have fleetingly joined that group over the past half-decade but those names have nearly been fixed towards the bottom of the ladder.

Each will be looking to rise up sooner rather than later, and via different means. Most seasons see someone from the bottom four make finals in the following year.

All four of the cellar dwellers from last year have reasons for hope in 2024, albeit at different levels of ambition.

North Melbourne will be hoping for more stability in its football department, and for some of their much-hyped youngsters to take the next step. Fans would also be buoyed by a more aggressive and attractive game style.

West Coast will mostly be hoping for better luck on the injury front and availability for its best players, a hope that seems forlorn so far.

While youngsters like Reuben Ginbey, Oscar Allen and Harley Reid have looked promising this preseason, the Eagles’ injury list keep piling up.

They will almost certainly beat their ABC Sport projection of one win (rounded up to the nearest whole number), but that should not be the mark of success for the four-time AFL premiers.

Hawthorn has shown some exciting flashes under coach Sam Mitchell, who has been inventive with how he has deployed the talent at his disposal.

The progression of that talent, and how he blends them in with the last of the Hawks’ golden era, is the biggest question for those at the club.

Prior to the season, many tipped the Suns as the most likely side to rise up from the bottom to the top.

While parts of the preseason looked rough, other portions showed the system that coach Damien Hardwick is trying to install with the side.

It might take some time — like it did with the Giants last year — but the hopes are high on the Gold Coast.

If one or two of these four move out of the cellar, someone needs to go back down. That is harder to work out.

The only seemingly certain thing about the season ahead is the uncertainty that the next seven months looks to throw on footy fans from across the country.

Strap yourselves in, because it is set to be a wild ride.

Sports content to make you think… or allow you not to. A newsletter delivered each Friday.

dan