If the EFL Championship last year was a volcanic explosion, then this year is the spreading and settling of the lava flows.
No team this year will approach the 97 points earned by Norwich or the 91-point total of Watford last year. In fact, Brentford's 87-point, third-place finish from a year ago could be enough to win the league this year.
Last season there were four, possibly five teams of Premier League quality, with at least four other worthy promotion contenders. This year, only two or three clubs can say they are deserving of automatic promotion, maybe two or three true playoff challengers and half a division's worth of average sides within touching distance of a top-six spot.
While there are fewer fiery sides in 21-22, the balance of talent throughout the league makes for a much different but equally engrossing Championship campaign.
Just nine points separate fifth place from 18th, and nine clubs could be within three points of the last playoff spot once all the matches in hand (caused by Covid cancellations) are completed.
Here's how things shape up after today's matches...#EFL | #SkyBetChampionship pic.twitter.com/4WETCSVsbF— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) December 27, 2021
With the Championship season halfway done, which clubs will separate themselves from the pack as they hope to earn a top-six spot?
EFL Championship Promotion Analysis
1) Bournemouth (46 points)
After losing in the playoff semifinals last year, Bournemouth was immediately cast as a promotion favorite for 21-22. So far, the club has followed course, beginning the year 15 matches unbeaten and maintaining a top-two spot since mid-September.
Philip Billing has proven once again he is head and shoulders above the Championship in more ways than his 6-4 frame. The Dane has seven goals and four assists as a box-to-box midfielder while also flexing his defensive prowess.
Striker Dominic Solanke ranks third in the league with 17 goals — already two more than his total from last year — while young winger Jaidon Anthony has put forward a strong debut campaign.
The Cherries might not be as potent offensively as Fulham, but this is a Bournemouth side that gained important experience during last year's playoff push and should advance from a relatively weak pool of promotion candidates.
2) Fulham (45 points, one match in hand)
Statistically, two teams have been head and shoulders above the rest of the Championship this year: West Brom and Fulham.
London's oldest professional club is led up front by Aleksandar "The Best Striker the Championship Has Ever Seen" Mitrović, who leads the division with 22 goals scored and has benefited from some underrated performances from former Liverpool man Harry Wilson.
The Cottagers easily lead the league in goals scored and rank second in goals allowed, which they demonstrated during a recent seven-match winning streak where they out-scored their opponents 25-2. That run though was followed up by four straight draws and a defeat, which knocked the club from its perch at the top.
Expected goals give Fulham an extra 14 points, and for a team already playing well, they will be promotion favorites.
3) Blackburn Rovers (42 points, one match in hand)
English Ben Brereton: 9 goals in 80 games
Chilean Ben Brereton Díaz: 19 goals in 23 games
It's usually an overstatement to say that one player is carrying a team, but no other player in the Championship has accounted for a higher percentage of his team's goals than Ben Brereton Díaz, who has simply become a different player since his Chilean call-up earlier this year.
Rovers even lost their two best players from last season: Adam Armstrong (28 goals, sold to Southampton) and Harvey Elliott (seven goals, 11 assists, returned to parent club, Liverpool), from a side that finished 15th.
There were some rough patches earlier in the year — namely a 7-0 defeat to Fulham — but since that match, the club has now won five in a row (without conceding a goal) and six of its last seven.
This improved defensive record has put Rovers on the cusp of the top two, but you feel they need a secondary goal scorer (no other player has more than five goals) if they want to seriously contend for promotion.
4) West Bromwich Albion (41 points)
For much of the first half of the season, it seemed as if the top three clubs in the league were untouchable. But with Blackburn Rovers' recent winning streak and West Brom's inability to put the ball in the back of the net (just five goals over the last 10 matches compared to six goalless showings) have made the top two into a four-horse race.
Much like his predecessor Sam Allardyce, new manager Valérien Ismaël plays a pragmatic style of football that isn't pretty to watch but is often effective. Despite having the second-worst pass completion percentage in the league, the Baggies have the best defense in the Championship.
This long-ball style has allowed the Baggies to spend more time in the opponent's third than any other team, which also has equated to many shots on target. While finishing these shots has been an issue; expected goals shows that West Brom should have 12.5 more goals scored.
This is a strong, veteran squad with significant carry-over from last year's EPL side. Anything less than promotion will be a disappointment.
5) Middlesbrough (36 points)
After an up-and-down first three months of the campaign, Middlesbrough has won four of its last five, avoiding the Covid bug to jump from 15th to fifth.
Of teams on this list, only Stoke has scored fewer goals and only Luton averages less possession. Yet with former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder at the helm, Boro is taking advantage of a weaker field and has firmly established itself in the promotion conversation.
6) Huddersfield Town (36 points)
After two near-relegation experiences in 18-19 and 19-20, a 10th-place finish last year helped right the ship for the Terriers. Huddersfield is led by a trio of youngsters, two of whom are in their first full Championship campaign.
Welsh winger Sorba Thomas is less than a year removed from playing for non-league Boreham Wood and now ranks third in the Championship with eight assists. The backline is led by a teenager, 18-year-old Chelsea loanee Levi Colwill, while 23-year-old center midfielder Lewis O'Brien is the league leader in tackles won.
The Terriers aren't the most impressive side, but like Middlesbrough, they are an above-average side hoping that this is their year.
Outside the Playoffs
7) Queens Park Rangers (35 points, two matches in hand)
QPR has been one of the best clubs over the past two seasons to not earn a playoff spot, sporting 13th- and ninth-place finishes. They find themselves just on the outside again, albeit with a couple of games still to play.
The shifty Ilias Chair and hardnosed Lyndon Dykes create a dangerous attacking duo while Robert Dickie is one of the best center backs in the Championship.
Rangers only have one winning streak of more than two matches this year; they will need to do better than that if they want to earn promotion.
Simply stunning from Ilias Chair! #EFL | #SkyBetChampionship pic.twitter.com/bJXa2tb0xF— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) December 9, 2020
8) Stoke City (35 points, two matches in hand)
For the first time since it was relegated in 2018, Stoke might actually be relevant in the Championship this year. The Potters have the best defensive record of any side outside the top four, although they will have to play the rest of the season without 6-6 center back Harry Souttar after the Australian defender suffered a ruptured ACL while on international duty last month.
In the midfield, former Norwich man Mario Vrancic has been an underrated creative force, ranking fourth in the league in key passes per match and garnering four WhoScored? man of the match awards (tied for second). No Stoke player has more than five goals, which is a concern, but this unspectacular Stoke team is exactly where it wants to be: under the radar.
9) Nottingham Forest (34 points)
After six defeats in seven matches to begin the season, no team in the Championship has earned more points over the last 18 match weeks than Nottingham Forest. The change was prompted by the hiring of manager Steve Cooper in September. The former Swansea boss has lost just twice in 16 matches at the helm and has achieved a remarkable away record — the club has earned four more points on the road than at home this season.
Proven Championship scorer Lewis Grabban leads the line with 10 goals and four assists for a team that can play with anyone in the Championship at the moment.
10) Coventry City (34 points, two matches in hand)
A hot start took the Sky Blues within touching distance of the top two, but a recent bout with the draws (four ties and a defeat in their last five matches) plus a few Covid cancellations have bumped Coventry down the table.
One reason for this slump is the lack of production from frontman Viktor Gyökeres. The Swede's nine goals were third in the league through the beginning of October, but he hasn't found the net since for a side that needed a late surge to avoid relegation last year.
This is a young Coventry squad, but with wins in its two matches in hand, it could move up six spots in the standings.
Other Teams of Note
11) Sheffield United (32 points, two games in hand)
Winners of four straight, the Blades are up to 11th after a pair of miserable stretches (winless in five matches to start the year and two wins in nine more recently) and could be top six should they win their games in hand.
Expected goals even give United an extra 13 points — enough to put the club in third place. 36-year-old striker Billy Sharp (six goals and six assists) leads a balanced side that is finally starting to regain its confidence and could be dangerous in the second half of the season.
14) Luton Town (29 points, two games in hand)
While winning its two games in hand would still put Luton just outside the playoffs, no Championship has a bigger gap between its league position (14th) and WhoScored? rating (seventh in the championship).
The Hatters improved from 19th to 12th last year and jumped as high as fifth this season before a trio of Covid cancellations, so a playoff spot is not out of the question.
EFL Championship Promotion Playoffs Prediction
3) West Bromwich Albion (Promoted via playoffs)
4) Blackburn Rovers
6) Sheffield United