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Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Key stretch: Minnesota

By Brian Bennett

Fútbol got all the attention on Monday, but we're still dreaming about football. As we continue to count down toward the season, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Today, our series moves on to the Minnesota Golden Gophers:

Key stretch: Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29)

Breakdown: If there was a downer about Minnesota's 8-5 season in 2013, it was that the Gophers lost their final three games after starting 8-2 and breaking into the Top 25. The closing kick in the 2014 regular season looks just as imposing, if not more so, on paper. Minnesota's first November matchup is the Floyd game against Iowa, followed by a home finale against Ohio State and road games against the Cornhuskers and Badgers -- four teams that have will be among the favorites to win the Big Ten this season. The Gophers and Buckeyes haven't played since 2010, and Minnesota hasn't beaten Ohio State since 2000. Jerry Kill's team got a breakthrough win against Nebraska last season but will have to try and repeat that in Lincoln this time around. And, of course, Wisconsin has won 10 straight and 17 of the last 19 in the Axe series. Minnesota will have four straight weeks of potentially very difficult games to end the season, and it will need to make sure its offense doesn't disappear late in the season as it did in 2013.

Prediction: An 0-4 mark certainly seems plausible, and the Gophers could be underdogs in the entire month of November. Kill's program, however, looks like it has reached the point where it should be able to compete with and beat some of the Big Ten's best teams. Is this the year Minnesota finally brings home the Axe? Going to Camp Randall makes it more unlikely, though it would be even sweeter that way. The Iowa game is a key here; if the Gophers can win the pig, they should have some confidence going into the final trio. We'll predict a 1-3 mark here, thinking Minnesota either beats the Hawkeyes or scores one upset. A better closing performance than that should mean a strong follow-up to 2013.