If the last four games - road games at Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State sandwiched around a home game with Michigan - marked one of the more challenging stretches in Penn State history, these next four games could be the most interesting.
On paper, the Nittany Lions will be favored, likely by double-digits, to win at Iowa and then close the regular season with home wins over Indiana and Michigan State.
The last time Penn State was 9-0 this deep into a season was 1999, and a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to a Sugar Bowl date with Florida State: The Lions forgot to put Minnesota away, resulting in maybe the worst regular-season loss of the Paterno Era.
Asked about it this past week, JoePa was candid. He blamed the leadership on that team and himself.
"We had a couple guys that I felt kind of let the rest of the football team down," he said. "I won't get into names - [players] who were going to be high draft picks and all that kind of stuff, and maybe lost sight of the fact that it was not a question of the team, it was a question of what might happen to them."
LaVar Arrington, a superior talent but a flamboyant personality who Paterno never fully reached, was the second overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Teammate Courtney Brown, not a vocal leader, was the No. 1 overall pick. Brandon Short had returned for a final season of eligibility but saw his stock fall to the fourth round.
Paterno later said he felt the coaching staff "didn't get enough out of that team."
"I didn't do a good job," he said. "I didn't stay on top of them. Hopefully we're in a different situation this year."
That appears to be the case.
Though the Lions have a number of very good players, they may not have a first-round draft pick - at least not one eligible to come out this year.
The combination of a team-first attitude and an even more veteran staff that has adjusted extremely well to Paterno on a motor scooter at practice and in the press box during games has strengthened the Lions.
The resolve and urgency that let Minnesota hang around in '99 was replaced by a key turnover that was immediately cashed into the decisive touchdown last week at Ohio State.
In addition to this year's "different cast," as Paterno says, the game following Minnesota in '99 was Michigan. Clearly, the Lions were caught peeking. That shouldn't be the case now, given a welcome open date, perfectly timed following the prime-time win in Columbus.
It's not like the Lions will be looking past Iowa at Indiana.
Indeed, the road has been cleared - in part because Penn State has raised the level of its play, been stronger mentally, better on the road and in the clutch and in part because the Big Ten houses four of the more disappointing teams (Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and, if you're from Columbus, Ohio State) in the country.
Of course, to its credit, Penn State contributed to those disappointments.
As for that fourth game of the stretch, well that's the great mystery. If the Lions finish unbeaten and remain No. 3, they'll have to deal with the reality of a flawed system that will shut them out of the BCS title game and award a consolation prize of the Rose Bowl and a likely matchup with Southern Cal.
If they wind up No. 1 or No. 2, they'll play for the national title in the Orange Bowl Jan. 8.
While that would seemingly be the perfect way for Paterno, who will be 82 next month, to end his career, and turn a great football team over to an in-house successor, the legend doesn't sound like he's going anywhere now that he's seized control over his own destiny.
He plans to get his hip "fixed" and move on - probably not to the rest of his life but to next season.
"Whether it's going to be right after the season or whether we wait a little bit, I don't know," he said of surgery. "All I know is I want to get out on the road and recruit a little bit. We're not going to let this interfere with me doing the job I have to do for this football team."
When a Daily Collegian reporter interpreted that to mean he's returning, Paterno could only smile and say: "Have I ever said I wasn't?"
In other words, enjoy this for as long as it lasts, and when the time comes, he'll let us know.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.