Penn State knows it's out of the national-championship picture -- if it was ever in it -- but the Nittany Lions' camp hasn't given up hope that it can win the Big Ten title.
"We're trying to be the Big Ten champion, and they [Iowa] are next on our schedule," senior defensive tackle Devon Still said. "We have to beat them to move on to the Big Ten championship."
Observers would fairly wonder: How is that possible without commiting to a No. 1 quarterback?
And maybe it isn't. Maybe there's been a total reality loss, starting at the top, but listening to Joe Paterno this week, one comment jumped out:
"We're in the middle of trying to do something special," he said.
Huh? The definition of "special," at least in terms of Penn State football, is a championship.
Even 11-2 teams take a backseat to the ones that were truly special. That description would be reserved for unbeatens in 1968, '69, '73, '86 -- which will be honored at halftime today -- and 1994.
Though it wasn't perfect, surely the 1982 team, which delivered the first national title, would fit the classification of special. The 2005 season, which finished 11-1 and No. 3, was special in part because it was unexpected.
The 1978 defense and, despite two losses, the 1981 offense were special.
In a game of word association, no aspects of this year's team appear to be worthy matches of "special."
The defense has carried the team so far but largely against inferior competition and will find out a lot more about itself today.
Now that Anthony Fera has been installed as the kicker, the special teams are improving, but the east-west, start-stop return game is anything but special, and the Lions have had a field goal and a punt blocked and several other close calls.
Yeah, yeah, yeah: We know Chaz Powell returned a kickoff against Indiana State for a touchdown, just like he did against Youngstown State last year.
But take that away, and the Nits average 15.2 per kickoff return, which would be worst in the nation (instead, they're 73rd). The punt team is just as bad. It has tiptoed to a 6.3 per-return average, 83rd best in the country.
Now, to the offense. In a nutshell, between the offensive line yet again being below average and the stubbornness of Joe and Jay Paterno to stick with Rob Bolden, this unit makes the defense look great and the special teams look OK.
Nonetheless, the Lions are 4-1, and if they can somehow find themselves today, against an Iowa program whose coach has outschemed Penn State worse than anybody not named Bryant, maybe there will be, finally, some reason for optimism.
Talent-wise, it's conceivable the Lions could be 8-1 heading into their open date.
Organizationally? Well, that's a whole different story as we've seen, starting with the (mis)management of the quarterbacks and Bolden's lack of development.
If the offense implodes again today and melts in the red zone again, it could get ugly at Beaver Stadium for the remainder of this year and lead to 6-6 or worse.
With trips to Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin remaining along with home games with Purdue, Illinois and Nebraska, only the Boilermakers would seem to be an automatic win -- and even that may not be a given if the Lions lose today and trudge into a noon start, before a likely sea of empty seats, next week.
At the same time, because nobody on the schedule looks unbeatable except Wisconsin, a true national championship contender, the significance of today's game for Penn State is huge.
The term "must-win" is overstated in sports, but it fits here.
To think you can win in Evanston, let alone Columbus, or beat Illinois at home, let alone Nebraska, confidence lacking so far this year is necessary.
Because if the Nittany Lions lose again to the Hawkeyes, we're looking hard at two very long months and anything but a special season.