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Key stretch: Illinois

6/26/2014

It's another day closer to the college football season, and like you, we can't wait. To get geared up, we're looking at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each league squad.

Next up is Illinois, which enters a pivotal season for third-year coach Tim Beckman.

Key stretch: Minnesota on Oct. 25, at Ohio State on Nov. 1, Iowa on Nov. 15, Penn State on Nov. 22

Breakdown: The goal is pretty simple for Illinois: make a bowl game. The Illini haven't reached the postseason since 2011 and might need to reach the 6-win plateau to ensure that Beckman returns for a fourth season. To do so, Illinois must play well at home because its road schedule -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is daunting, to say the least. It's why this stretch includes three contests at Memorial Stadium, where Illinois has recorded five of its six wins under Beckman.

The Illini likely will come in at 1-2 in Big Ten play following trips to both Nebraska and Wisconsin, and the Minnesota game will be huge. Illinois must handle the Gophers' power run game and find gaps in what should be a strong Minnesota defense. A night road trip to Ohio State won't be much fun, but then Illinois returns home for Penn State and Iowa. Illinois let Penn State off of the hook last year in Happy Valley and hasn't faced longtime rival Iowa since the 2008 season.

Prediction: Illinois should be in decent shape to win its first four home games (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State and Purdue) but likely will need at least one win during this stretch to ensure a bowl berth. It won't be easy as both Minnesota and Iowa are improving, Penn State boasts a top quarterback in Christian Hackenberg and Ohio State is, well, Ohio State. I see anywhere from zero to two wins. I'll go with 1-3.