The Penn State football program has a golden opportunity on Saturday evening, gift-wrapped in Scarlet and Gray.
Unbeaten and ninth-ranked Ohio State and its rock-star head coach, Urban Meyer, will come rolling into Beaver Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. kickoff.
Before the season, few would have predicted that this game would be of serious significance. After all, both teams were under first-year head coaches and dealing with NCAA penalties. Neither team is eligible for the Big Ten title game or a bowl this season.
Ohio State was coming off its worst season in decades at 6-7. And Penn State, in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, was hammered this summer with some of the most severe sanctions in NCAA history. Several of PSU's top players bolted for other programs.
Things looked even darker when Penn State stumbled to a disappointing 0-2 start, losing to a Mid-American Conference school (Ohio) and a team that's now winless in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia).
Since then, however, the Nittany Lions have discovered new life and won five straight games, inspired by an inventive new head coach in Bill O'Brien and an unshakeable senior class.
Now, shockingly, Penn State and Ohio State will battle for undisputed first place in the Big Ten Leaders Division on Saturday. Ohio State comes in at 8-0 overall and 4-0 in the conference, while Penn State is 5-2 and 3-0. Adding to the intrigue, the Big Ten has already ruled that Ohio State and Penn State are eligible to win the Leaders Division crown, despite their NCAA sanctions.
But when the Buckeyes and Lions collide, there will be much more at stake than just a possible division title.
The showdown will also serve as a major recruiting battle. A large number of potential PSU recruits are expected to attend the game. There's little doubt that PSU's major recruiting rival in the coming seasons will be Meyer and the Buckeyes.
Since the NCAA sanctions were handed down, PSU's recruiting has slowed to a trickle of low-level prospects. After the penalties were imposed, not a single blue-chip recruit has committed to O'Brien, and a once-promising 2013 class had been thinned considerably. That should surprise no one. Several pundits said the "death penalty" would have been preferable to the sanctions PSU received.
A victory over Ohio State and Meyer, however, might go a long way in convincing some big-time recruits that the Penn State program is far from dead.
Saturday's game is also expected to draw the largest Beaver Stadium crowd of 2012 -- in excess of 100,000 fans. The season's first sellout is even possible. An all-stadium White-Out, an ESPN national television audience and a 5:30 p.m. start should guarantee a raucous, ear-splitting atmosphere.
There's no denying that PSU attendance has been hurt this season, down by an average of about 10,000 fans per game. That has been caused by a combination of factors, most notably the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's firing, the NCAA penalties and an unpopular new season-ticket plan.
An emotional win on Saturday in front of a packed house and millions of TV eyeballs may help Penn State lure back some wayward members of Nittany Nation. It may also help the university regain some of its lost luster in the eyes of the college football world.
Finally this will be the first head-to-head matchup between O'Brien and Meyer.
There's no question that Meyer, once he gets his own recruits into Columbus and gets past the NCAA sanctions, is expected to become the undisputed king of Big Ten coaches. In fact, he may already be there. After all, he already owns two national titles and Ohio State is nearly unmatched when it comes to tradition, facilities and fan base.
If O'Brien can beat Meyer in their first showdown, it could put the new PSU boss on more equal footing with the man that many consider to be the best coach in college football. That could pay immediate dividends in attracting recruits and fans.
So yes, there's plenty at stake on Saturday evening for Penn State, and first place in the Leaders Division may be the least important thing among them.
It's a golden opportunity for a wounded Lion to restore its roar.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dis patch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdis patch.com.