- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
As I prepare to hit the road next week for some much needed R&R, I thought we should take a look at the most pivotal road games for each Big Ten team this season. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, and there might not be a greater factor to a team's success or failure than its performance away from its home turf.
Here are the road games that could make or break the season in the Big Ten. These aren't necessarily the toughest road games for a team, just the most important ones.
Fork in the road: Nov. 7 at Minnesota
The Illini will be coming off a fairly manageable stretch against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan, the league's worst three teams last season. If they haven't dug too big a hole to open Big Ten play, they could make a serious bowl push beginning at TCF Bank Stadium. But a loss could trigger a down-the-stretch slide, much like last year.
Fork in the road: Sept. 19, at Akron
Indiana enters the season with its head coach on the hot seat and serious doubts about the team's ability to get on track again. That's why an early trip to Akron and the new InfoCision Stadium is so critical. Indiana could be 3-0 after a win against Akron, or it could be 1-2 with a loss and starting the death march.
Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Penn State
One of the nation's toughest road schedules has been well-documented, and it all begins in Happy Valley. The Hawkeyes will get a huge boost from a victory at night in front of Penn State's white-out -- never easy to do -- and can validate themselves as a serious league title contender. A loss would reinforce Iowa's recent struggles on the road (the Hawkeyes went 2-3 last year) with more challenges ahead.
Fork in the road: Oct. 3 at Michigan State
Michigan's first road game will be pivotal in a number of ways. It could mark the first road start for a freshman quarterback (Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson), and it kicks off a tough stretch of games against the Big Ten's upper tier. Michigan might head to East Lansing at 4-0, but another loss to in-state rival Michigan State could sidetrack Rich Rodriguez's team.
Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Wisconsin
I'm starting to get really excited about this game because it could mean so much for both teams. Michigan State might be coming off its seventh consecutive victory at Notre Dame and looking to establish itself as a factor in the Big Ten title race. But the Spartans have dropped four of their last five games at Camp Randall Stadium, which will provide a tough setting for a new starting quarterback.
Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Northwestern
The Gophers don't get many favors with their Big Ten road schedule, and their league-opening trip to Northwestern provides the best opportunity for a win. Minnesota will be coming off two emotional home games against Cal and Air Force, and could be anywhere from 3-0 to 1-2 entering Ryan Field. If the Gophers have taken the next step, they need to show it against Northwestern, which has delivered consecutive heartbreaking losses to Tim Brewster's team.
Fork in the road: Oct. 17 at Michigan State
For the second straight year, Northwestern could enter its showdown against Michigan State undefeated because of an easy opening stretch. The Wildcats took themselves out of last year's contest with a miserable first quarter, but they've had pretty good success at Spartan Stadium since 1995. A win could propel Northwestern toward a major bowl, while a loss would lower expectations.
Fork in the road: Nov. 7 at Penn State
An obvious choice here as Ohio State likely will take one of the nation's most impressive win streaks into Happy Valley. Provided the Buckeyes handle Purdue and Indiana, they will own a 17-game Big Ten road win streak. The last team to beat Ohio State at home? Penn State in 2005. A win in the Big Ten's premier game could clinch a league title for Ohio State. A loss could put the Buckeyes out of the BCS mix.
Fork in the road: Oct. 3 at Illinois
Penn State plays six of its first seven games at Beaver Stadium, but a trip to Champaign could prove problematic. Illinois boasts the league's best passing attack, and Penn State's secondary likely will be its weakest link this fall. The Lions lost their last game at Memorial Stadium and struggled to contain Arrelious Benn last year in Happy Valley. A win likely means Penn State will be 7-0 heading to Michigan on Oct. 24.
Fork in the road: Oct. 10 at Minnesota
Like Indiana, Purdue is a team that needs some early success to keep things afloat. The opening stretch won't be easy, and Purdue hosts Ohio State and Illinois after its visit to the Twin Cities. The Boilers will have a rough time winning at Oregon in Week 2, so this game provides quarterback Joey Elliott and his teammates a chance to build confidence away from home.
Fork in the road: Oct. 10 at Ohio State
Wisconsin's overall schedule is extremely favorable this fall, but the team's biggest test arrives in Columbus. This isn't necessarily a must-win for Wisconsin, but the Badgers need to show they can play with the league's best on the road. Wisconsin faces Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back weeks, and its performance in those games will determine whether or not the Badgers are back.
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2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy