UNIVERSITY PARK -- Senior offensive tackle Chima Okoli, who likely will be among Penn State's best leaders and spokesmen this season, was asked earlier this week to frame the Nittany Lions' "realistic" goals in light of their total dropoff from the national radar in 2010.
He didn't hesitate.
"Our goals are the Big Ten championship and the national championship," he said. "It's been that way since Day 1."
Never mind that the Lions finished 7-6 last year and their best win was against Northwestern -- and they had to come from 21-0 down to do it.
Never mind that they were blown out of four games (Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois), lost twice at home to traditionally lesser programs (Illinois and Michigan State) and laid an egg against Florida in the Outback Bowl.
Never mind that they've snuck into just one of the two preseason polls -- the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, which put them at No. 25, probably as a courtesy to Joe Paterno.
And never mind that they've not won a national title since 1986 and have really only fielded one team, in 1994, that was national-championship worthy in the 25 years between that magical night in Tempe and this morning.
Despite a dropoff that includes four losses or more a startling eight times in the last 11 seasons, despite starting a sophomore quarterback who publicly threatened to leave the team after its last game, despite having an 84-year-old head coach who for the third time in the last five years needs assistance to walk and probably will be -- or should be -- in the press box today, this team still believes it can catch the massive shadow it cast long, long ago.
"Sky's the limit," defensive end Eric Latimore said. "We have all the tools."
Even though they've been mired in it more often than not since 1997, Okoli said the Lions won't settle for "mediocrity," and Latimore agreed, repeating the goals of Big Ten and national titles.
JoePa himself hasn't quite taken that stand, but he did allow, "We're optimistic that we've made great progress."
Almost none of that will be discernible today against an Indiana State team that drew less than 35,000 fans last year -- for its entire home schedule.
But the glorified scrimmage will allow Penn State an opportunity to hit someone else, to begin desperately needed defensive improvement through turnover creation, to get the first gauge of the quarterback competition, to see how much the kicking game misses temporarily suspended Anthony Fera and to work out the kinks for when the season really starts next week against Alabama.
And whether there should be any optimism whatsoever the Lions can stay on the same field -- even their own field -- with the Crimson Tide.
The Lions clearly believe there is and as JoePa, set for his 62nd season opener, said, "We think we're a lot better football team right now than we were at this time last year. And hopefully we can go out and show that to people."
The most optimistic of predictions have the Lions at 9-3 this year with many of the pundits weighing in at 8-4 or 7-5.
The players believe they'll be a lot better, and maybe they will. That belief, after a five-year malaise, translated into a great year in 2005, when the Lions finished 11-1 and lost only once, in the last second at Michigan.
Could this season bring that strong of a comeback?
Most of us don't believe, but then again, we're not the ones who must.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NeilRudel.