Key stretch: Iowa

Third in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams. Next up, Iowa.

UPDATE: Dates of games have been changed and are now accurate.

Key stretch: Penn State (Oct. 2), at Michigan (Oct. 16), Wisconsin (Oct. 23), Michigan State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: It's a little tricky identifying one key stretch in Iowa's schedule, because the Hawkeyes face a trap game Sept. 18 at Arizona and take on Northwestern and Ohio State, the two teams they lost to in 2009, in back-to-back weeks in November. But Iowa's stretch to open Big Ten play should determine whether the Black and Gold will be playing for the Rose Bowl or the Gator Bowl by the time the Wildcats and Buckeyes roll around. Three of these games take place at Kinnick Stadium, but I'd argue that Iowa played better away from home in 2009, particularly against Penn State and Wisconsin. Iowa dodged quite a few bullets at home last fall (Northern Iowa, Arkansas State, Michigan, Indiana) and needs to display better consistency. Penn State will be gunning for the upset after falling to Iowa the past two seasons. The Wisconsin-Iowa matchup could determine which team is the top contender to unseat Ohio State as Big Ten champ. Michigan State will be out for revenge after falling to Iowa on the final play last year in East Lansing. Sandwiched between these emotional games is a trip to Michigan, where Iowa has only won once since 1990.

Prediction: Iowa likely will be favored in at least three of these matchups, if not all four, and could put itself in an excellent position for another BCS bowl berth by going 4-0. The Hawkeyes always match up well against Penn State and get the Nittany Lions fairly early in the schedule, when a young Penn State quarterback will be adjusting to the limelight. Still, Penn State would love nothing more than to ruin Iowa's prime-time party. Michigan's offense gave Iowa some trouble last season, particularly Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter. The trip to Ann Arbor could be tricky. I expect very close contests against both Wisconsin and Michigan State, teams loaded with offensive skill players that will test Iowa's stout defense. It'd be tough to see Iowa losing more than one game during the stretch, but a 4-0 sweep will be tough as well. I'll go with 3-1.

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