We've seen enough of Penn State through five games to fully understand this is not and will not be a great Nittany Lion team this year.
These next seven games will provide evidence as to whether it will even be a good team.
If the Lions can regroup from their two trips to the woodshed -- at Alabama and Iowa, both by 24-3 counts -- they'll need to start improving immediately, win today against Illinois and use next week's open date to recharge for a second half of the season that the Nittany Nation can feel good about.
We'll not only find out about Penn State's physical capabilities, but we'll find out about its leadership, which often separates great from good, good from average and average from poor.
The Lions were the latter at the beginning part of the last decade and with as many concerns as have surfaced so far, it's clear they can not just show up and dominate anybody.
The way Penn State has played so far has erased most 9-3 and 8-4 predictions of the preseason and scribbled in 7-5, 6-6 or worse.
To avoid that, the Lions will have to compensate for what they lack in pure talent by being more precise in their execution, more emotional and more unified.
Leadership, of course, starts at the top, and there's little doubt Joe Paterno is not as fiery as he used to be, either in practice or on the sidelines. He's generally had to leave most of those inspirational moments to his assistants. Nor is he nearly as good on the day of the game.
But JoePa, at least publicly, remains calm amid the disappointment around him, and he continues to say the right things. While everyone knows today's game is a must-win situation to avoid a southern turn to the season, JoePa won't admit as much.
"Obviously we're in a situation where we need to go out and play well," he said. "Winning is, yeah, certainly very, very high on our priorities. But I don't think it's a 'must' game in the sense that we need to win it or else. I think we're still in the developing stage ... And I would hope we would play better Saturday than we played [at Iowa], and go from there."
Paterno is taking the right approach. If he's running around practice yelling "we have to win!" it will only add pressure to an already-combustible situation. It's more productive for him to be addressing areas that have been lacking such as slow starts, missed tackles, personnel tweaks and clock management, obviously, and doing so without panic.
He's good at that.
It was also encouraging to learn that the players held a team meeting this past Monday without the coaches. That could produce more leaders than just the current captains (Brett Brackett, Ollie Ogbu) and perhaps spread those responsibilities to some worthy underclassmen.
Because this team will need all the positive reinforcement it can get.
Other than the potential and toughness exhibited by true freshman quarterback Rob Bolden, and decent quarterback pass protection, there has not been a consistently bright spot on offense.
Further, the offense has not been ready to play early. It has scored a touchdown in the first quarter of just one game, and that was the two it put up to take an early 14-0 lead before falling sleep the rest of the way against Kent State.
The defense hasn't been much better in the first quarter, allowing Alabama, Iowa and even Temple to establish the tone and clearly has struggled, understandably, to replace the likes of Jared Odrick, Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and, yes, Josh Hull -- all of whom are on NFL teams.
Conversely, the Lions are adjusting and/or playing harder in the second half as they've held the opponent scoreless in the third quarter. Whatever they're doing at halftime needs to be transferred to the pre-game.
That, too, starts with leadership.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.