Key stretch: Illinois

The key stretch series is back! We'll be taking a look at a stretch of games in each Big Ten team's schedule that could make or break the season.

Let's get things kicked off with Illinois.

Key stretch: Ohio State (Oct. 15), at Purdue (Oct. 22), at Penn State (Oct. 29), Michigan (Nov. 12)

Breakdown: The schedule finally is on Illinois' side this season, as the Illini avoid Missouri and open with five consecutive home games and six of their first seven at Memorial Stadium. A strong start is likely, but things get a bit tougher in October. After making its first road trip to Indiana, Illinois returns home to face Ohio State, a team the Illini typically play tough. A victory against the Buckeyes could raise the bar on how far Illinois could go this fall. Illinois then visits Purdue, which should be an improved team and hasn't forgotten last year's lopsided loss in Champaign. The Illini then return to State College, where last year they won for the first time in team history. Penn State should have a more cohesive offense than the unit Illinois shut down last October. After an open week, the stretch concludes with Michigan, a team many Illini fans consider their top rival. Illinois and Michigan combined for 132 points in last year's triple overtime shootout at the Big House. The schedule sets up for Illinois to return to a bowl, game, but the team's performance during these four games can take a good season to great, or an average season to poor.

Prediction: Illinois catches Ohio State after the Buckeyes face Michigan State and Nebraska to open Big Ten play, but Luke Fickell's team will have its suspended players back on the field. Expect another low-scoring affair that could go Illinois' way if quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase raises his game. Both Purdue and Penn State should be improved, and Michigan is a bit of a wild card. I don't see Illinois sweeping the stretch or going winless. A 2-2 split seems likely.