Ross County should be optimistic about new Premiership season, but Kettlewell's gambles will have to pay off
Get a digital copy of the Inverness Courier delivered straight to your mobile or tablet every week
Ross County will open their Premiership campaign against Motherwell tonight hoping to kickstart an improved campaign from last year.
Some may look at a 10th place finish, two points ahead of Hamilton Academical in the relegation play-off spot as survival by the skin of their teeth, but the Staggies will have been optimistic that they could steer well clear of any danger.
They had eight games left to play before sport was shut down back in March, all of them against bottom-six teams.
In fact, County's three games before the split were due to be against St Mirren, Hamilton and Hearts – the three other sides in the battle to avoid relegation alongside them.
From the six games Stuart Kettlewell's men had already played against those rivals, County had only lost once – against St Mirren in November – picking up two wins and three draws from the other five matches.
Considering the Staggies only slipped into their season low and final position of 10th in the two weeks before the season came to an early end, after facing Motherwell and Rangers, they would have had confidence that at least a ninth-place finish beckoned if not a push to finish a spot or two higher.
It is up, rather than down, Kettlewell will be looking this season.
That does not mean there are no question marks for County to answer though.
The fact that Dingwall was home to the Premiership's worst defence last season was repeated to the point of boredom for Kettlewell, but in his newly solo role he has taken steps to try and rectify that.
Sean Kelly and Richard Foster were moved on, while former captain Marcus Fraser turned down a new deal and will instead turn out in the black and white of St Mirren. Meanwhile, Alex Iacovitti, Connor Randall and former Inverness Caledonian Thistle left back Carl Tremarco have all come in.
Any time there is significant upheaval in a single area of the pitch it is a risk, but it could be well worth the gamble if the new-look County defence can keep the ball away from their own goal more regularly than last year.
Speaking of their own goal, there is a new face there too. Ross Doohan's loan move from Celtic may have been the worst kept secret of the Scottish transfer window so far, and he will be keen to show that he can step up to the top flight after two years at Ayr United.
Ross Laidlaw will not make it easy for him though, with the former Hibernian stopper used to fighting for his spot as a number two at Easter Road and then reclaiming the gloves after being displaced by Nathan Baxter last season.
Further up the pitch, Stephen Kelly's arrival on loan from Rangers could be seen as a bit of a gamble in its own right after Ewan Henderson failed to capture the imagination of the Jail End in a similar move last year.
Regan Charles-Cook though is one player who has already drawn praise from Kettlewell and new teammate Billy Mckay.
The former Gillingham man reportedly scored an impressive, long-range effort in the Staggies' first pre-season friendly against Aberdeen, with Mckay talking of his excitement at linking up with the new arrival.
Preparations in themselves raise another question over County, as they have for every team in the league.
In the end, Kettlewell will be satisfied to get games against Aberdeen, Livingston and Celtic – with the less said about the Hibernian debacle the better.
None of those games have come at home though, so it will be a strange feeling at the Global Energy Stadium tonight. County have played intra-squad bounce games on the Victoria Park turf, but that cannot prepare them for the intensity of a Premiership opener.
Some questions are entirely outwith Kettlewell and County's control. This time last year, not many would have seen Livingston in contention for European places for large stretches of the campaign, nor would most have predicted St Johnstone's early season collapse or Hearts' relegation.
However, Livingston may find that the pressure of expectation leads to an entirely different campaign this time around – and their opening day defeat in Paisley will hardly breed confidence.
Dundee United are the newcomers to the division this year, and with Lawrence Shankland still plying his trade at Tannadice it almost feels like anything could happen if he can adjust to the Premiership. County will be well aware that they pipped United to the Championship title two years ago though, which was also a campaign Shankland was firing on all cylinders for Ayr.
It may be an easy prediction to say that the bottom four will be some combination of County, Dundee United, St Mirren and Hamilton, but the Staggies might just fancy themselves to finish at the top of that pack – and if there is another surprise struggler County will back themselves to go even higher.
Is the top six achievable? For County, the target first and foremost will be survival, and they will take it from there. But if all of those question marks are met with positive answers, it might just be possible that they can repeat Livingston's successes and sneak in.