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Monday, July 12, 2010
Key stretch: Illinois

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Every Big Ten team has a stretch of games that could make or break its season. In 2009, Iowa validated itself with wins against Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State, while Michigan fell apart after losses to Penn State, Illinois and Purdue. As we inch closer to preseason camp, let's take a closer look at these important sections of the schedule.

I'll start things off with Illinois.

Key stretch: Indiana (Oct. 23), Purdue (Oct. 30), at Michigan (Nov. 6)

Breakdown: I strongly considered listing Illinois' first three games -- a neutral-site opener against Missouri followed by home games against Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois -- as the key stretch, because a slow start could doom this team right off the bat. But given the youth at quarterback and the question marks elsewhere, Illinois gets a little time to settle in. A poor midseason showing against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan, however, could seal Ron Zook's fate as head coach and close the book on the season. Illinois will be coming off of a stretch against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State and needs to win at least two, if not all three contests, against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan. The good news is Illinois gets the Hoosiers and Boilers at home, and it faces a Michigan team it has beaten in each of the last two seasons. These three teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense last fall, and an Illinois offense led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Mikel LeShoure and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins will have chances to put up points.

Prediction: I see Illinois winning at least one of these games, but with so many question marks on both sides of the ball, a major surge seems unlikely. The offense gains some confidence against vulnerable defenses, but Illinois struggles to contain opposing quarterbacks Ben Chappell, Robert Marve and Denard Robinson/Tate Forcier (depends on who's starting for Michigan). Indiana played well on the road last season but couldn't finish off games, and the Hoosiers might leave the door open for Illinois. Both Purdue and Michigan should improve from 2009, and an Illinois win would give the team some confidence before a manageable closing stretch against Minnesota, Northwestern and Fresno State.