Penn State is 4-1. Its defense is playing at an exceptionally high level. The team's goal of winning a Big Ten title is very much alive.
That's the good news.
On the pessimistic front, what have the Nittany Lions really accomplished so far? They eked out a 14-10 win at Temple. They had to hold on for dear life last week against, of all teams, Indiana. They were never really all that close in the loss to Alabama. The offense is struggling and Joe Paterno refuses to decide on a starting quarterback.
So while Penn State is 4-1, it feels as though this team is flirting with disaster. We need a referendum on whether these Nittany Lions are actually any good, and as luck would have it, the perfect measuring stick arrives in Happy Valley this week: Iowa.
Well, OK, the Hawkeyes are more like the ruler that keeps slapping Penn State's knuckles. They've won eight of the past 10 in this series, including three straight. Kirk Ferentz's team beat the Nittany Lions when they were ranked No. 5 in 2009 and derailed their undefeated season late in 2008. None of the current Penn State seniors have ever beaten Iowa. Doing so this week could satisfy those wondering if this season is heading down the right path.
"It would be a big win for us," receiver Derek Moye said. "They've had our number over the years. But more importantly, it's a matter of trying to go 2-0 in the Big Ten."
You'd be hard-pressed to find two Big Ten contenders more diametrically opposed. Iowa is second in the league scoring offense at 37.8 points per game behind a dynamic passing attack led by James Vandenberg. Penn State's defense ranks second in the conference in both passing yards allowed and total yards allowed. The Nittany Lions have struggled to move the ball while juggling quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. But the Hawkeyes' defense is young and has been easily exploited by better teams.
That Iowa defense, though, has given Penn State problems in the past, and Ferentz had a bye week last week to try and shore up some trouble spots.
"They're a tough, physical team," Moye said. "They don't try to trick you. They keep their game plan the same throughout the years. You've got to match their physicality and toughness."
Vandenberg and his trio of standout receivers -- Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley -- could pose some problems, especially against a secondary that will be missing veteran safety D'Anton Lynn for the third straight week. The Hawkeyes have been very effective this season by using some no-huddle, high-tempo sets. The Lions defense just saw that last week at Indiana.
"Last week really got our defense conditioned to understand what it will be like Saturday," defensive tackle Devon Still said. "It should be a little easier because we're used to it now."
Penn State is also used to losing to Iowa. Does that add extra motivation to this game? Linebacker Glenn Carson sure suggested that this week with his tongue-in-cheek remarks about how his team needed to "humble" Hawkeyes fans who "think they have a stranglehold" on his program. But Paterno said Tuesday he hadn't mentioned the losing streak to the team.
"I think our kids, we're in the middle of trying to do something special," he said. "I think that Iowa is the next step. Even though they may have some thoughts about, 'Iowa has beaten us that many times, we’ve got to beat them and show them we're pretty good,' I don't know. I've never approached it that way."
Are the Nittany Lions pretty good? They need to prove that to more than just Iowa. A skeptical public awaits the answer.