Essex won their first County Championship title in 25 years last season
Specsavers County Championship
Dates: 13 April – 27 September
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“This time last year, a lot of pundits were saying we would go down.”

What do pundits know? Fast forward to September 2017 and Essex had won the County Championship title by 72 points. They were unbeaten, and a country mile ahead of their rivals.

But after a winter of change off the field, what’s in store for the county champions this season? There are definitely no certainties. Middlesex, title winners in 2016, were relegated a year later.

With the 2018 County Championship campaign set to start on Friday, BBC Sport takes a look at what to expect over the next six months.

Essex ‘have it all to do’

That small dig at the ‘pundits’ comes from Essex’s new head coach Anthony McGrath.

The former England and Yorkshire batsman has a tough job to follow in the footsteps of Chris Silverwood, who led Essex to their first title since 1992 last year, but is now England’s fast-bowling coach.

“Excitement is the overriding feeling,” McGrath, 42, told BBC Essex.

“As defending champions we’ve got it all to do. This time last year a lot of pundits were saying we’d go down, this time they’re saying we’re favourites to win it.

“If we play our best cricket, we’re a match for anyone in this division.”

Dimitri Mascarenhas (left) will work as Anthony McGrath’s assistant head coach

By his side will be ex-Hampshire and England all-rounder Dimitri Mascarenhas, appointed in February.

“The most important thing in appointing Dimi was his character,” McGrath added. “He’s fitted in really well as I knew he would. He’s a great addition to our squad.”

Alastair Cook will miss their first two games against Yorkshire at Headingley and at home to Lancashire, but England’s leading Test run-scorer is available for the next three fixtures, before the Test series against Pakistan begins in late May.

The county have also strengthened their pace bowling unit by bringing in Australia international Peter Siddle and Matt Coles from Kent.

Can Notts or Worcestershire ‘do an Essex’?

What made Essex’s feats all the more remarkable last season was the fact they had only been promoted from Division Two the previous campaign.

So can history repeat itself?

Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire, who came up to Division One, both enter new eras in 2018.

Worcestershire were rocked by the departure of head coach Steve Rhodes in December following an internal investigation into his conduct, while Notts begin life without long-serving captain Chris Read.

New Pears coach Kevin Sharp can call upon an array of exciting youngsters, including England Lions pair Joe Clarke and Josh Tongue. They have also added experienced seamer Steve Magoffin and Australia batsman Travis Head to their squad.

Nottinghamshire are under the stewardship of new captain Steven Mullaney following Read’s retirement at the end of last season.

Notts have huge experience throughout the side, and a formidable pace attack including Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, Luke Fletcher, Mark Footitt and Harry Gurney.

Their batting line-up has been weakened by the departure of Brendan Taylor to Zimbabwe, Read’s retirement and Alex Hales’ decision to only play white-ball cricket.

Alex Hales will not play in the County Championship for Notts in 2018

However, new signing Chris Nash from Sussex and New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor bring more than 330 first-class games between them.

Nottinghamshire head coach Peter Moores believes there is not much to separate the eight counties in the top tier.

“All the teams in Division One are very strong,” the former England head coach told BBC Radio Nottingham.

“Only eight [sides] in the first division means that, even if you’re playing well, it’s hard to get in a position of safety right until the end.

“You’re targeting to be in the top three or four going into the second half of the season, so you can have a real push at trying to win it. To do that, I think the first five games are big, it’s important to get some wins in that and we are going to have to play some good cricket.”

Surrey looking strong – the rest of Division One

One of the pretenders to Essex’s crown is Surrey.

Under new skipper Rory Burns, the south London side are looking for their first County Championship title since 2002.

They made a statement of intent on Tuesday, signing former South Africa fast bowler Morne Morkel on a Kolpak deal.

Virat Kohli may be heading to The Oval for a short stint before India’s Test series in England

There are also strong rumours that India captain Virat Kohli will join