The Conference promotion tussle will be a two-horse race this season, at least according to leading bookmakers.
Bristol Rovers’ first-ever relegation out of the Football League has seen them immediately installed as heavy favourites for an immediate return to League Two.
It’s easy to see why. The Gas finished second-bottom of the entire 72, with Darrell Clarke – assistant to the experienced John Ward – overseeing the Pirates’ slide into non-league football.
In his first managerial job, Clarke will be expected to take the West Country outfit to promotion but will do so without the services of last season’s top-scorer, John-Joe O’Toole, who hit 15 from the centre of midfield.
Defender Michael Smith has joined Peterborough United, whilst the experienced trio of Matt Harold, David Clarkson and Dan Woodards have all left.
Summer signing, Matty Taylor, knows how to score goals at this level after netting 22 in 77 starts for Forest Green Rovers, whilst the experienced Andy Monkhouse brings a wealth of Football League know-how to the Memorial Stadium.
With Grimsby, Barnet, Halifax and Forest Green in August, the first month should provide a pretty clear picture of whether Clarke’s side are equipped to bounce back from relegation.
It’s Forest Green Rovers who are second favourites, despite finishing tenth last term and sacking manager David Hockaday in October.
Already boasting Lee Hughes and Luke Rodgers, Adrian Pennock’s side have added former Hull City, Cardiff City and Preston North End forward Jon Parkin this summer.
The powerful forward spent the last two years at Fleetwood Town, bagging 17 in 25 starts and has previously scored goals in the Championship.
Whilst The Green have been shorn of the services of the aforementioned Taylor, the much-lauded trio of Rodgers, Hughes and Parkin should more than make up for the loss of the England C forward.
Promoted from the Conference South, Eastleigh will look to keep up the recent tradition of wealthy clubs rising through the divisions quickly.
The marquee summer signing of James Constable cannot be ignored and the former Oxford United hitman – subject of a number of bids from Swindon Town not that long ago – will not have come cheaply.
Former Gateshead winger Yemi Odubade has experience at this level, with former Bee, Jack Midson, having been a League Two player with Wimbledon until his summer switch. At the back, the vastly-experienced Paul Reid is a coup, having signed from Northampton Town.
Last season’s beaten Conference play-off contestants – Grimsby Town, Gateshead and Halifax are all expected to contest the promotion picture once more.
Gary Mills has revamped his Heed squad following last season’s Wembley heartbreak, bringing forward Jon Shaw back to the club from Luton and poaching Hatters team-mate JJ O’Donnell for an undisclosed fee.
Lewis Guy has also returned to Tyneside, having started his professional career at Newcastle United before embarking on a lengthy Football League career.
Former Bee John Oster also provided good news, re-signing for the new campaign.
There have been big losses too, with former Chelsea centre-half Carl Magnay joining the aforementioned Grimsby, whilst James Marwood, scorer of 15 goals last term, has joined St Mirren.
Josh Walker, Liam Hatch and Jack Lester have all departed the Gateshead International Stadium in a summer of change. Whether Mills can repeat the trick or not, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Mariners have been out of the Football League for four years, finishing fourth for the second consecutive season last term.
Now solely under the stewardship of Paul Hurst, promotion has to be the aim for one of the division’s great underachievers of recent years.
Southport duo Scott Brown and Aristote Nsiala have been snapped up, along with centre-back Magnay.
For the Shaymen, the loss of last season’s 31-goal top-scorer, Lee Gregory, to Millwall will undoubtedly be a blow but Neil Aspin has been busy bolstering a squad which finished fifth last term.
The strategy for replacing Gregory has been Moneyball-esque, with Aspin capturing no fewer than four forwards this summer in the hope the quartet make up the goal shortfall.
Scott Boden netted 18 times for Macclesfield last term, whilst Richard Peniket (Tamworth) hit seven and Ross Dyer (Mansfield Town) bagged six. Former Bradford Park Avenue forward, Jamie Jackson, is something of an unknown quantity having signed after impressing on trial.
Kidderminster Harriers, seventh last season, have been busy in the transfer market, adding a blend of youth and experience.
Left Kevin Nicholson has arrived from Torquay United, whilst on the other side of the defence; Jared Hodgkiss has plenty of Conference experience with Forest Green Rovers.
Former Birmingham City forward, Alex Hales, and ex-Bristol Rovers full back, Jake Green, are at the other end of the experience scale though and are tasked with replacing Oldham-bound Amari Morgan-Smith and full-back pair, Lee Vaughan and Mickey Demetriou.
A lot appears to depend on whether the replacements for those who have departed are of the required level for Gary Whild’s side.
And what of Barnet?
Martin Allen has been quick to highlight the points gap between champions Luton Town and the Bees last season (31) and has been able to achieve his aim of building a smaller but higher-quality squad.
The Dan Bradley ‘situation’ was far from ideal but has at least been nipped in the bud before a ball has been kicked. Charlie MacDonald, Bondz N’Gala and Sam Togwell have all dropped out the Football League and bring good experience with them.
Keanu Marsh-Brown is still a Bee at the time of writing and of those to leave The Hive this summer; only Jake Hyde and Mark Byrne were ever key figures.
Barnet used 34 players in the Conference last season and carrying a squad of that size diluted the quality on offer to the various head coaches - whilst Allen is in charge, that won’t be allowed to happen again.
Pre-season had indicated a lack of goals might be a problem but John Akinde was the division’s fifth-highest scorer last term. Though yet to open his Bees account, he has been playing against Football League defences throughout pre-season.
As the other side to drop out of the Football League, Torquay United could be expected to make a go of promotion. Whether or not the Gulls are truly in a position to embark on a promotion push remains to be seen.
A huge clear-out at the end of the season saw rookie boss Chris Hargreaves appointed following the sacking of Alan Knill.
It has been a summer of change at Plainmoor, with experienced heads such as Shaun Cooper and Nicholson leaving.
A number of senior players were released or transfer listed at the end of the disastrous 2013/14 campaign and one gets the feeling Hargreaves’ side are amongst the favourites on reputation more than anything.