Barring not beating Indiana and even accepting a loss to Michigan State in the regular-season finale, Penn State has gathered itself since its collapse against Illinois, won three straight in uncharacteristically wildly entertaining fashion and prevented a disastrous season.
Given all the graduation losses (Jared Odrick, Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman, Daryll Clark, Josh Hull), defections (Pat Devlin) and injuries (Curtis Drake, Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore, Nick Sukay, Lou Eliades, Garry Gilliam), the season could have headed much further south than the 6-3 position in which the Nittany Lions sit this morning.
But as Joe Paterno is fond of saying, "we're not out of the woods yet."
An 8-4 record would be reasonably successful and could include a signature victory over the Spartans, who are still in the hunt for the Big Ten title.
On the other hand, the Lions can't finish 6-6 and feel good.
As for today, no one expects Penn State to win in Columbus - certainly not the oddsmakers, who are giving the Nittany Lions a staggering 18 points, their most since getting 21 at Michigan State in 1966 (a 42-8 loss).
How the Lions fare vs. OSU and how they finish the regular season will go a long way to determining how this season is ultimately viewed by the Nittany Nation.
That may be why JoePa, even though the matchup with the No. 8 Buckeyes is not for the top of the Big Ten standings, said earlier this week, "it's a big game for us, no question about that."
Maybe because he sees it for what it is - an opportunity.
Rare is the season in which the Lions' best chance to impress may be in defeat, but that is exactly what's at stake for them after one-sided road losses at Alabama and Iowa.
They had success in Columbus prior to their entry to the Big Ten, winning there in 1956, '63, '64 and '78. That doesn't include the 37-0 pasting Bill Hollenback's boys put on the Bucks in 1912 - the only game of the 25-game series JoePa didn't witness.
But since becoming conference partners, Ohio State has been big brother. That's for sure. Because of geographic proximity, their Big 33 affiliations and, of course, the absence of Pitt, Ohio State is the closest thing to a rivalry on Penn State's schedule.
"I don't think there's any question it's a big rival for us," JoePa said.
And yet, he also accurately acknowledged, "I don't know whether it's as big a game for Ohio State as it is for us, because in the back of their heads, it's Michigan there."
But the Buckeyes have played Penn State like a rival. They lead the Big Ten series, 11-6, and they have taken the Lions to the woodshed in Columbus more times than not. Penn State got its first win there on its last visit, when a late fumble by freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor paved the Nits' fortunate 13-6 victory.
Like all of its previous trips, and even including the 1978 game, Penn State has not scored more than a single touchdown in Columbus. They've averaged a mere 8.0 points in their last eight games at the Horseshoe.
"Lately," JoePa said, "they've obviously had the upper hand."
In a nutshell, Penn State has played scared. Even in 1996, an otherwise very good 11-2 year that included wins away from home over USC, Wisconsin and Michigan and a clubbing of Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, the Lions lost 38-7 in Columbus.
Maybe this year will be different. Maybe the Lions, rejuvenated by the presence of quarterback Matt McGloin, will play with a swagger they've lacked in Columbus. Maybe their defense will show up.
"It's been the most physical game we play every year," Ollie Ogbu, the Lions' defensive captain, said. "You look forward to O-State because they've been the cream of the crop every year."
While some of the Lions scoffed at the point spread - "ridiculous," McGloin called it - Ogbu isn't so surprised.
"We haven't played well against good teams," he said. "There is no reason for anyone to give us confidence."
They'll have to earn that, and what better place than Columbus?
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.