Illustration: Mick Connolly.

Illustration: Mick Connolly.

Sydney, Hawthorn and Fremantle are everyone's box trifecta this year but the fourth estate is having great difficulty in ranking the fourth team of 2014.

Moreover, it's not just the media that is struggling to round out the top four. In their annual market forecasts, the AFL captains named only three teams (besides their own) that would make the grand final. Result: Hawks 10 votes, Sydney 5, Freo 3. That is an extraordinary conformity, in a competition with margins slighter than Josh Bootsma's shoulders.

If you talk to officials in the ''industry'' you'll find similar uniformity about the projected top three and near-universal agreement (outside the relevant clubs) that the Saints, Demons and Greater Western Sydney will fill the bottom three slots, though some are warming to the idea that the third-year Giants will make a significant leap.

There's a school of thought that the ''Leppa'' Lions will be down in the dungeon, too.

The perception is that the top and bottom trios - the aristocracy and the downtrodden - are predictable, but that everything else is highly volatile. The middle class is broader than ever: it could stretch from fourth to 14th. Ironically, in a season in which ''equalisation'' is the big reform, the playing field itself shapes as unusually equal. The bottom pair of 2013, GWS and the Dees, will be much better - they might win five to seven games each - but still mired in the bottom sixth.

Hawthorn and Sydney should be locks for the top four, barring injuries, and most club folk rate Freo up there. It's quite conceivable that one of the fancied three will fall and miss the final four, but it's impossible to predict which one, since that will be decided by unpredictable variables - the bodies of Luke Hodge/Sam Mitchell/Luke McPharlin/Matthew Pavlich/Kurt Tippett, plus the attitude of Buddy Franklin.

Hawthorn's hunger, which was an issue after the 2008 flag, doesn't appear to be a problem; these days, one measure of ''hunger'' is skinfolds (hungry teams eat or drink less). Unlike the flabby hungover Hawks of '09, the class of 2014 has passed the pre-season pinch test.

The task of guessing a final eight is daunting because 12 to 14 teams can make it. But the greater riddle comes once you've put down the names Sydney, Hawthorn, Fremantle in whatever order. Then comes?

Could it be … Geelong? The Cats were within a kick of putting the Hawthorn people in a padded cell in the 2013 prelim final. They have young talent, they have Hamish McIntosh actually playing, they have the prospect of Tom Hawkins playing fit. They have Joel Selwood and a settled, strong defence.

Every year the Cats are supposed to decline. Like Andrew Demetriou's resignation, eventually this prediction will happen. But this time there are compelling reasons - not just hunches - to justify a downgrade of Geelong's AAA on-field rating.

Joel Corey and Paul Chapman last year weren't what they were but they were still mighty and the ranks of retirees is reaching is a critical mass.

While Geelong is replenishing with impressive youth, injuries have hit in pre-season. Nathan Vardy is gone and Allen Christensen will miss about half the season and the electric Steven Motlop missing the opening two to three games.

So we cannot be confident about Geelong as the fourth team.

Could it be … Essendon? If not for Stephen Dank, peptides and ASADA the Dons would be contenders. They were top two as late as July. They have excellent talls, with Dyson Heppell bringing a classier element to a hitherto B-grade midfield dominated by Jobe Watson. They have a sound defence that will include, hamstrings willing, Michael Hurley. They have wunderkind Joey Daniher. They've added a happy Chapman.

But the case against is bleeding obvious, too: They lost draft picks and trading opportunities, they're still in ASADA limbo and we don't know how this will play on players' minds. They have a problem kicking goals, since most of those talls - besides Daniher - seem more adept in defence. We can't put the house on the Dons, either.

Could it be … Richmond? The Tigers have been rising with each season under Damien Hardwick. They have finals experience. They have a quick and classy midfield, headed by Trent Cotchin and Brett Deledio. They have Dustin Martin and Ty Vickery ready to make steps. They have Brandon Ellis and Nick Vlastuin … their depth is greatly enhanced this year.

But we can't trust Richmond. Not yet. The Tigers don't defend when the opposition rolls, as Carlton did in that final. They haven't got an A-grader in defence, despite Alex Rance's gains. There is no big-bodied power forward, since Jack Riewoldt isn't that large.

Could it be … North? The Roos lost so many games by so little. They've added Nick Dal Santo to the mix. They have structure at both ends, their midfield is strong. At their infrequent best they're an attacking, skilful side that looks the top four part. But within that exhilarating team lies the doubt. The loose Roos kept blowing leads for a reason. They don't defend first, they run and stun themselves, like deer in headlights. Brent Harvey and Drew Petrie are old. There is a doubt about this team's mettle.

Could it be … Collingwood? The Pies own the equal of any midfield, headlined by Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Dayne Beams, with Taylor Adams added. Travis Cloke is the game's most imposing forward and few defences can deal with him and Ben Reid. Alas for the Pies, sports science hasn't progressed to the point of cloning Reid and they have relinquished A-graders Dale Thomas and Heath Shaw. They are in quasi-rebuild mode.

Could it be Port Adelaide, which made such improbable progress? Yes, it could and no, probably not. Could it be the Blues? One thinks not. Carlton's list restricts its range from 6th to 13th, methinks. It could be West Coast, which embarrassed many of us last year, when talked up as a flag pick, only to flop, under the weight of injuries and a stale coach.

By this column's reckoning, seven middle-class teams are capable - if all went swimmingly - of snatching a top four spot. We've seldom seen so many applicants for a situation vacant near the top.