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Toughest stretch: Wisconsin Badgers

All this week, we’ve identified and analyzed the pivotal points in the 2016 schedules of every Big Ten team. These make-or-break periods may determine the result of a program’s bid of a program to escape the division basement, to reach bowl eligibility or contend for the College Football Playoff.

And we’ve saved the most preposterous stretch for last. To finish the series, let’s look at Wisconsin.

Toughest stretch: Weeks 4 through 7 (at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State)

Why: OK, seriously, how does this happen? In the return of the nine-game conference schedule -- which means the first year of three division-crossover games -- the Badgers got this steep hill to climb to open league play.

Come on. Is this some sort of sick repayment from the Big Ten for losing in three straight trips to the Rose Bowl after the 2010 through 2012 seasons?

Maybe the league's schedule-makers simply thought Wisconsin could handle this murderer’s row of East Division foes. Here’s some bad news: The Badgers likely can’t.

Here’s some worse news: The league opener at reigning Big Ten champ Michigan State comes three weeks after Wisconsin opens at Lambeau Field against SEC power LSU.

And here’s some even worse news: On the heels of the Oct. 15 Ohio State game, Wisconsin visits Iowa, which won the West Division last year in unbeaten style, then hosts Nebraska and travels to Northwestern. That’s a brutal two months.

But for the purposes of this exercise, let’s stick to the four-week stretch that begins Sept. 24. Regardless of the result against LSU, the Badgers ought to feel good about themselves on the way to Michigan State after home games against Akron and Georgia State.

Whether it’s Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook at quarterback for Paul Chryst’s team, the Spartans pose a formidable test in the Badgers’ first trip outside the state. Wisconsin hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2002, when the Spartans finished 4-8 under Bobby Williams and Morris Watts.

Under Mark Dantonio, MSU has won 11 or more games in five of the past six seasons. And they might be picked third in the East this year -- conveniently, just behind Michigan and Ohio State.

Wisconsin hasn’t played the Wolverines since 2010. So yes, the Badgers missed the Brady Hoke era, landing back on Michigan’s schedule just as it’s expected to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

It doesn’t get any easier after an off week, though at least the Buckeyes visit Camp Randall. Ohio State has won four straight games in the series, all since 2011, including a 59-0 romp in the their most recent meeting for the Big Ten title in 2014.

Come to think of it, maybe that dud of a performance by Wisconsin has something to do with this punishing three-game stretch. Yeah, we know, the 2016 schedule was unveiled in July 2013 -- 18 months before the blowout in Indianapolis. We'll keep looking for a conspiracy to explain this madness; it's gotta be out there.