Seventh in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.
Next up, Michigan State.
Key stretch: Wisconsin (Oct. 2), at Michigan (Oct. 9), Illinois (Oct. 16)
Breakdown: There's a good chance Michigan State enters this stretch at 4-0, and certainly no worse than 3-1 (with a loss to Notre Dame). If the Spartans want to truly validate themselves as an upper-tier Big Ten team, they must beat a Wisconsin squad that could be ranked in the top 10 on Oct. 2. Wisconsin almost certainly will be 4-0 heading to East Lansing, and the Badgers provide a major test for Greg Jones and the Michigan State defense. The Spartans rallied for a dramatic win in 2008 against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium, but they surrendered 38 points and 193 rushing yards last year in Madison. Up next is a trip to archrival Michigan, which really can't afford a third consecutive loss in the series. Michigan State's defense once again will be challenged by Michigan's speed and athleticism at the skill positions. The stretch wraps up with a must-win home game against Illinois. Michigan State must take care of business at home against a young Illini team before hitting the road to face Northwestern and Iowa.
Prediction: It's never easy to forecast what Michigan State will do during October, a rough month for the program in recent years. There's a lot to like about the Spartans entering the season, namely the skill-position depth on offense and Jones' return in the defensive midsection. If Michigan State truly takes a step forward, it could emerge from this stretch at 7-0 and ranked in the nation's top 20 or top 15. Spartans fans could start to dream big before the trips to Evanston and Iowa City. Wisconsin has had some recent troubles in the state of Michigan, but the Badgers match up well against the Spartans. I see Michigan State going 2-1 or 1-2, and the trip to Ann Arbor is likely the swing game.
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