After a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State last weekend, Penn State has five games left to show exactly what kind of team it is. Going 4-1 over the course of the remaining schedule would give the Nittany Lions a 8-4 record, identical to their 2012 campaign and just as impressive considering what the NCAA sanctions have done to their talent pool.
In the past two games against Michigan and Ohio State, the Nittany Lions have gone from the peak of the mountain top to the depths of the valley. Finding themselves somewhere in between should be enough to provide contentment in State College.
Penn State plays Illinois at home this weekend before traveling to play Minnesota. It'll come back to State College for contests against Purdue and Nebraska before finishing the season on the road against Wisconsin.
Without the opportunity to participate in the postseason, the Nittany Lions have a chance to play spoiler to a few teams' hopes of reaching the Big Ten title game. But while there's a chance to end on a high note, they also could drop some winnable games, throwing the fanbase into a panic.
The best-case scenario for Penn State would be to win all of its remaining games. While this is the obvious thing to say, the possibility of going undefeated the rest of the way isn't far-fetched.
Of their next three opponents, the Nittany Lions should handle Illinois and Purdue with ease. Minnesota is playing well but is one of the worst in the country at throwing the football, ranking 199th nationally.
On average, Penn State is giving up 159 yards on the ground each game. If you take away the Ohio State game—in which the Buckeyes rushed for an astronomical 408 yards—that average dips down to around 117 yards. Statistically, that would put the Nittany Lions' rush defense in the top 20.
The key to Penn State's success over the next five games is stopping the run. Illinois is its only remaining opponent whose passing offense ranks inside the top 75. If Penn State is able to tighten up its run defense, run-heavy teams would have to throw the ball more. This should keep the Nittany Lions in most games, even if their pass defense is only in the middle of the pack.
For those toeing the ledge after the Ohio State loss, let's not forget that the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten. Penn State was severely outmatched, which won't be the case against its opponents the rest of the way.
A 9-3 record would improve on last year's campaign and certainly give Bill O'Brien and his staff some good momentum heading into recruiting. Not only that, but it would prove that the 2012 season wasn't a fluke.
Realistically, the worst-case scenario for the Nittany Lions would be to go 2-3 in the next five games. Although 0-5 is worse, it's very hard to image Penn State losing to inferior opponents like Illinois and Purdue at home.
The next three games for the Nittany Lions is a crucial stretch that could set the tone the rest of the way. Some would look at the schedule and see three easy wins, but sandwiched in between Illinois and Purdue is a Minnesota team that is playing very well this season.
The Gophers currently sit at 6-2 and are fresh off a home win against Nebraska, who was ranked at the time. With a win against Indiana this week, they could have some serious momentum leading up to the Penn State game. A loss in that game isn't something Penn State fans expect, especially since the team hasn't lost to Minnesota since 2004.
After this immediate three-game stretch, the Nittany Lions will close out against two of the Big Ten's elite.
First, they'll have Nebraska. While no Ohio State, the Huskers pose a similar threat—a very mobile quarterback in Taylor Martinez who has an equally dangerous backfield counterpart in running back Ameer Abdullah. If Penn State fails to fix its defensive issues, Nebraska could take advantage.
A loss might sting a little extra than normal. The last time the Huskers were in Happy Valley, they defeated the Nittany Lions in the first game after the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal came to light. Last season, Penn State lost in Lincoln on a controversial call that would have greatly impacted the game.
Penn State will travel to Wisconsin to end the season, a team whose road to the Big Ten Championship is currently blocked by Ohio State. The Badgers could still be in line for their 10th win by the time this game rolls around, which means they would have just reeled off six wins in a row.
With momentum—the sixth-best defense in the country and eighth-best rushing attack in the country—this year's installment has the potential to be similar to the 45-7 loss Penn State suffered at Camp Randall Stadium in 2011.
Finishing the year at 6-6 would be a step back after having such a promising season in 2012. With how the initial scholarship reductions affected Penn State's talent pool, you'd have to wonder if this kind of record should come to be expected until Penn State returns to full strength.