Every team in the Big Ten faces a crucial stretch in 2016. It might make the difference in a program’s bid to escape the division basement, to reach bowl eligibility or contend for the College Football Playoff. But for all 14 teams, a three- or four-game, make-or-break period exists.
So to help you map your fall, this week, we’re identifying and analyzing those pivotal points around the conference.
Up next: Iowa.
Toughest stretch: Weeks 8 through 11 (Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan)
Why: The good news for Iowa during this stretch? It’s off on Oct. 29 to recover from what is always a physical test against Wisconsin -- and not just for the players.
The bad news for the Hawkeyes? Their off week is followed by back-to-back night games against East Division bullies Penn State and Michigan. Two years ago, these first two weeks of November would not have appeared as daunting. PSU was saddled by the effects of probation, and the Wolverines were a mess.
Things have changed, especially in Ann Arbor. Jim Harbaugh’s second team is expected to compete for the Big Ten title. Iowa has won three straight against Michigan at Kinnick Stadium. And the Hawkeyes have won seven straight games at home, a streak that could reach 12 before the Wolverines’ visit.
That is, of course, if Iowa beat the Badgers (in addition to Northwestern and its three nonconference foes). Wisconsin is no pushover, having won three straight in Iowa City, and the Badgers might still feel the sting of a 10-6 loss to Iowa last season in Madison.
Sandwiched between Wisconsin and Michigan -- both of which won 10 games in 2015 -- is Penn State. Night games at Beaver Stadium are no picnic.
Iowa faced no stretch like these three games in 2015 as it rolled to the West Division title and a Rose Bowl appearance. With leadership from the likes of quarterback C.J. Beathard, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King, it is well prepared this season to handle such a sticky set of three games. But if the Hawkeyes' dreams of another 12-0 start remain intact after this stretch, consider it a major upset.