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Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Key stretch: Nebraska

By Adam Rittenberg

The days are getting shorter, which means the college football season is getting closer. With that in mind, we're taking a look at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each Big Ten squad.

Next up is Nebraska, a team aiming for a return to the Big Ten championship game in a season that carries a lot of weight for coach Bo Pelini.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin on Nov. 15, Minnesota on Nov. 22, at Iowa on Nov. 28

Breakdown: There are some reveal games earlier in the season, most notably an Oct. 4 trip to Michigan State, which sets the standard in the Big Ten right now. But if Nebraska wants to win the division, it must take care of its top challengers in the West. The Huskers need a strong finish, as they did in 2012, when they won their final six regular-season games to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. It begins at Camp Randall Stadium, where Nebraska was pummeled in its Big Ten debut in 2011 by Russell Wilson and Wisconsin. Wilson thankfully won't be calling signals for the Badgers this time, but Nebraska needs to be composed and consistent in one of the Big Ten's toughest road venues.

The middle game looks like the easiest as it occurs in Lincoln, but Minnesota outclassed Nebraska in last year's contest and might have a better team this fall. Minnesota's power run game presents a good challenge for Randy Gregory and Nebraska's front seven. Nebraska also will be looking to avenge an ugly 2013 loss when it visits Iowa on Black Friday. Iowa is a bona fide division title contender with strong lines, depth at running back and potentially more offensive weapons than it had last season. The Hawkeyes' favorable schedule should have them in the West Division title mix, and they host Wisconsin six days before Nebraska comes to Kinnick Stadium.

Nebraska likely will need at least two wins in this stretch, and possibly a sweep, to ensure tiebreaker advantages and claim a place in the league title game.

Prediction: There are a lot of factors involved in a late-season stretch, namely a team's health and, in Nebraska's case, its mental state after some earlier tests against Michigan State and possibly Miami, Northwestern and Fresno State. But the Huskers have enough firepower to be in the division mix and, if they're healthy, especially up front, they'll make some noise. They should avenge last year's loss at Minnesota, and I have them splitting the road games, not a bad result given the two hostile environments in which they'll play. So 2-1 here for Pelini's crew.