Big Ten: BT key stretch 10

Key stretch: Ohio State

August, 10, 2010
After several "friendly" reminders from Buckeyes fans, the Key Stretch series, which examines a series of games that could make or break the season for each Big Ten team, concludes with Ohio State.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin (Oct. 16), Purdue (Oct. 23), at Minnesota (Oct. 30), Penn State (Nov. 13)

Breakdown: Ohio State's three blockbuster matchups -- Miami (Sept. 11), Wisconsin (Oct. 16) and Iowa (Nov. 20) -- are nicely spaced out, but the trip to Madison will shape the Buckeyes' fate in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes won the last time they visited Camp Randall Stadium, handing Wisconsin just one of three home losses during Bret Bielema's tenure as head coach. But this is a better Wisconsin team that wants to avenge last year's 31-13 loss in Columbus, a game that could have been much closer than the final score. Ohio State will be the team gunning for redemption the next week against Purdue, which flustered Terrelle Pryor and handed the Buckeyes their most recent loss. After a trip to Minnesota and the bye week, Ohio State hosts Penn State, which won in Columbus in 2008. This stretch leads up to the Iowa game, which many think could decide the Big Ten championship for the second consecutive season.

Prediction: Ohio State has been tremendous in Big Ten road games under Jim Tressel, winning 16 straight before the Purdue loss. But the trip to Madison won't be easy, and Wisconsin's balanced offense will provide a major test for Ohio State's always-solid defense. Ohio State will need more than a few friendly bounces and a timely Wisconsin defensive meltdown to win at Camp Randall. That game is a toss-up right now. Ohio State should win the final three contests, although Purdue's offense will be a challenge and the Boilers always play the Buckeyes tough for some reason. Penn State will be a better team in mid-November than early September, but Ohio State's defense likely will be too much for a young Lions quarterback. Ohio State goes at least 3-1 and possibly 4-0 during the stretch.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Minnesota

July, 30, 2010
Tenth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Minnesota.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin (Oct. 9), at Purdue (Oct. 16), Penn State (Oct. 23), Ohio State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown:The Gophers' tricky nonconference slate also could qualify, but this stretch is where things went wrong for Brew's crew in 2009. Minnesota opened Big Ten play with a nice road win against Northwestern before dropping three of its next four contests. Everyone knows about Tim Brewster's struggles in rivalry games, and arguably no contest means more to Gophers fans than Wisconsin. If Minnesota can upset the Badgers and claim Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003, I really believe it changes the complexion of the season. A road win at Camp Randall Stadium would give Minnesota players confidence that they can win the big game again. They then head to Purdue, where they won in 2008. Two wins to open the stretch would provide a major confidence boost heading into consecutive marquee home matchups against Penn State and Ohio State. Even a 2-2 split would give the Gophers a chance to finish strong. On the flip side, a slow start could easily send the Gophers to 0-4 during the stretch and might put a third consecutive bowl berth out of reach. These are the types of games Minnesota hasn't won for quite some time, and something needs to shift soon.

Prediction: Everything hinges on the Wisconsin trip. Minnesota should be a sizable underdog heading to Madison and likely will need a strong offensive performance against John Clay and the Badgers. This is a rivalry game, so anything can happen, but I have a tough time picking Minnesota here. The trip to Purdue might be a must-win for Brewster, whose team held the Boilers to six points in 2008. It's hard to expect a repeat shut-down performance, but Gophers quarterback Adam Weber and his teammates will have chances to attack Purdue's suspect defense. After facing USC on Sept. 18, Minnesota will be familiar with big-name teams coming into TCF Bank Stadium. Still, it's hard to see the Gophers upsetting Penn State or Ohio State.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Penn State

July, 29, 2010
Ninth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Penn State.

Key stretch: at Iowa (Oct. 2), Illinois (Oct. 9), at Minnesota (Oct. 23), Michigan (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: This isn't meant to minimize the Alabama game, but Penn State will still be finding its identity, particularly at quarterback, when it visits Tuscaloosa on Sept. 11. An upset victory against the Crimson Tide obviously boosts expectations in a big way, but no matter what happens, Penn State needs a strong start to Big Ten play (my rhymes are sick). Iowa has had Penn State's number in recent years, but this time, the Lions likely will be in the underdog role, looking to spoil Iowa's big dreams on a Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State's young quarterbacks already will have tasted a hostile environment at Alabama, so they should feel at least a bit more comfortable. The Lions also will have a better understanding of how they need to play when they head to Iowa City. A victory instantly makes Penn State a Big Ten title contender, in large part because of the next three games, against teams that combined to go 6-18 in Big Ten play in 2009. Penn State could be 4-0 heading into another big stretch against Northwestern and Ohio State in November. On the flip side, a loss to Iowa plus a loss to Alabama could put Penn State at 3-2 heading into the Illinois game. Another stumble or two during this stretch would lower the ceiling for Penn State's season, with Ohio State still lurking on the schedule.

Prediction: Regardless of what happens against Alabama, Penn State must go at least 3-1 during this stretch. And despite the questions at quarterback, offensive line and special teams, I think the Lions will get it done. Penn State has dropped seven of its last eight games to Iowa, and the Hawkeyes enter the season with more answers and higher hopes. But I'm interested to see if the Lions perform better as the underdog in this matchup. Penn State was the higher-ranked team in 2002, 2008 and 2009 when it lost to the Hawkeyes. The Lions should be very strong on defense, and if they can force Ricky Stanzi into mistakes and limit their own miscues on offense, they'll be right in the game. Penn State should be favored in the other three games, and the Lions are certainly stronger defensively than Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. The Lions need a strong performance from Tom Bradley's unit, especially against Michigan, and enough offense from Evan Royster and Co. to take care of business.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Michigan

July, 22, 2010
Eighth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Michigan.

Key stretch: Michigan State (Oct. 9), Iowa (Oct. 16), at Penn State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: Don't look at this and assume that I'm dismissing the importance of Michigan's first two games against Connecticut and Notre Dame. They're absolutely huge for the Wolverines and embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez, who needs at least a split to keep the hounds at bay. But even if Michigan starts 0-2, it should even its record before a big swing game on the road against Indiana. So Michigan could be anywhere from 5-0 to 2-3 as it prepares to host rival Michigan State. Rodriguez and the Wolverines need signature wins, and this stretch provides three opportunities. Michigan must avoid its first three-game losing streak to Michigan State since 1965-67. The Wolverines have the personnel to attack Michigan State's defense, but can they stop Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' numerous weapons? Iowa could be a top-10 team when it visits Ann Arbor, and Michigan will need a polished performance to pull off the upset. The Wolverines were one of few teams to run the ball well against Iowa, and Denard Robinson could be a big weapon in this one. After a well-placed bye week, the stretch concludes with a prime-time clash at Penn State, where Joe Paterno could be going for win No. 400. Michigan gets a big chance to show its improvement on a national stage. This stretch give us a good idea of Rodriguez's standing heading into November.

Prediction: Michigan figures to be the underdog in at least two of the games and very possibly all three. Rodriguez's offense backslid in Big Ten play last year and needs to produce, especially in the run game. Iowa and Penn State boast two of the Big Ten's best defensive lines, so Michigan's offensive front had better bring its A game. But the Wolverines can't expect to win shootouts every Saturday in the Big Ten. The defense has to get better, and this will be a telling stretch as all three opponents boast above-average rushing attacks. Michigan also must find ways to rattle Cousins, Ricky Stanzi and the yet-to-be-named young quarterback who starts for Penn State. Given the uncertainty on the Wolverines' defense, it's hard to see more than one win during this stretch. Michigan goes 1-2 or 2-1, but I'm leaning toward 1-2.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Michigan State

July, 21, 2010
Seventh in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Michigan State.

Key stretch: Wisconsin (Oct. 2), at Michigan (Oct. 9), Illinois (Oct. 16)

Breakdown: There's a good chance Michigan State enters this stretch at 4-0, and certainly no worse than 3-1 (with a loss to Notre Dame). If the Spartans want to truly validate themselves as an upper-tier Big Ten team, they must beat a Wisconsin squad that could be ranked in the top 10 on Oct. 2. Wisconsin almost certainly will be 4-0 heading to East Lansing, and the Badgers provide a major test for Greg Jones and the Michigan State defense. The Spartans rallied for a dramatic win in 2008 against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium, but they surrendered 38 points and 193 rushing yards last year in Madison. Up next is a trip to archrival Michigan, which really can't afford a third consecutive loss in the series. Michigan State's defense once again will be challenged by Michigan's speed and athleticism at the skill positions. The stretch wraps up with a must-win home game against Illinois. Michigan State must take care of business at home against a young Illini team before hitting the road to face Northwestern and Iowa.

Prediction: It's never easy to forecast what Michigan State will do during October, a rough month for the program in recent years. There's a lot to like about the Spartans entering the season, namely the skill-position depth on offense and Jones' return in the defensive midsection. If Michigan State truly takes a step forward, it could emerge from this stretch at 7-0 and ranked in the nation's top 20 or top 15. Spartans fans could start to dream big before the trips to Evanston and Iowa City. Wisconsin has had some recent troubles in the state of Michigan, but the Badgers match up well against the Spartans. I see Michigan State going 2-1 or 1-2, and the trip to Ann Arbor is likely the swing game.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Northwestern

July, 20, 2010
Sixth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Northwestern.

Key stretch: Purdue (Oct. 9), Michigan State (Oct. 23), at Indiana (Oct. 30).

Breakdown: Northwestern has played its best ball under head coach Pat Fitzgerald in November, but it can't rely on a late surge every year. The Wildcats were struggling entering a similar stretch in 2009 but rallied for wins against both Purdue and Indiana. Those victories kept the team afloat and set up a perfect November (3-0) that resulted in an Outback Bowl berth. All three games could go either way, but Northwestern likely needs two wins to ensure a school-record third consecutive bowl berth. The Wildcats typically drop a nonconference game they shouldn't, and they open Big Ten play at Minnesota before hosting Purdue in a night game. Purdue outplayed Northwestern last year, and the Wildcats will need a strong defensive effort against Robert Marve and Co. After a bye week, the Wildcats face a Michigan State team that owns back-to-back wins against them after dropping a 48-41 overtime game in 2007. Northwestern and Indiana have played some wild games in recent years, and the Wildcats won't take a trip to Bloomington lightly after being stunned there in 2008.

Prediction: Northwestern could enter this stretch at anywhere from 2-3 to 5-0, but new starting quarterback Dan Persa should be comfortable by early October. The Wildcats will have chances to put up points against three opponents that struggled defensively to varying degrees in 2009. All three opposing quarterbacks -- Marve, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Indiana's Ben Chappell -- are dangerous and will test a new-look Northwestern secondary. I can't see the Wildcats sweeping the stretch or going winless. They'll split the home games and find a way to beat Indiana in Bloomington.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Purdue

July, 19, 2010
Fifth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Purdue.

Key stretch: Toledo (Sept. 25), at Northwestern (Oct. 9), Minnesota (Oct. 16)

Breakdown: Most of Purdue's problems in 2009 took place early in the season, as Danny Hope's team repeatedly found ways to lose winnable games. A strong start this season is not only critical but very doable. I strongly considered listing Purdue's four nonconference games as its key stretch, but the Boilers still need to prove themselves when Big Ten play begins. Regardless of what happens in the season opener at Notre Dame, Purdue will need to limit the mistakes that led to a 1-5 start last season. Even if Purdue falls to the Fighting Irish in South Bend, I see the Boilers entering this stretch at 2-1. Purdue has to take care of business against Toledo before facing very winnable games against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Boilers blew a big lead and couldn't hold onto the ball against Northwestern last season, and couldn't avoid the costly giveaways against the Gophers, either. A strong performance during this stretch gives Purdue a lot of confidence heading to Ohio State, while a poor showing will once against create an uphill climb for Hope's squad.

Prediction: If Purdue's offensive line holds up, it will put up plenty of points this fall. Quarterback Robert Marve has earned rave reviews so far in West Lafayette, and he'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal, including receivers Keith Smith, Cortez Smith and Justin Siller. Purdue should simply outscore Toledo to start the stretch 1-0. The Northwestern game will be a good one, as both teams are confident in their new quarterbacks but have some question marks (Purdue's defensive depth, Northwestern's run game). That game is a toss-up. Minnesota ranked last in the league in rushing in 2009, but the Gophers ran all over Purdue (207 rush yards, 4 TDs) in last year's game. If Purdue truly expects to improve, it must tighten up against the run and force Adam Weber to make plays through the air. I like Purdue in this matchup, but a lot could change before Oct. 16.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Wisconsin

July, 16, 2010
Fourth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Wisconsin.

Key stretch: at Michigan State (Oct. 2), Minnesota (Oct. 9), Ohio State (Oct. 16), at Iowa (Oct. 23)

Breakdown: Can Wisconsin take the next step in 2010 and put itself among the nation's elite? We should find out once Big Ten play begins. The Badgers should have little trouble starting 3-0, but they'll be tested at the start of the league schedule. A trip to Michigan State won't be easy, as the Spartans beat Wisconsin in East Lansing in 2008. Wisconsin then takes on rival Minnesota, a team that needs to win a trophy game in the worst way. Those Minnesota players don't want to go through their entire careers without ever hoisting Paul Bunyan's Axe. Wisconsin then faces fellow Big Ten frontrunners Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks, and Bret Bielema's team really struggled offensively against both the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes last year. If Wisconsin wants to put itself in position for the Rose Bowl, it can't afford more than one loss during the stretch and has to beat either Ohio State or Iowa.

Prediction: The Wisconsin coaches and the team's veterans remember what happened in 2008. The team earned preseason accolades, started 3-0 and surged into the top 10. Then Wisconsin went to the state of Michigan, blew a big lead in the Big House and never fully recovered. Sound familiar? The Michigan State trip absolutely huge for Wisconsin, and the Badgers will need a complete performance to beat an improved Spartans team. I like Wisconsin to start 2-0 during the stretch, but the last two games will be very tough. Wisconsin is dominant at Camp Randall Stadium, but Ohio State's recent run of Big Ten dominance has been built on impressive road wins. A rivalry game against Iowa follows, and the Badgers need a healthy John Clay and better play from the secondary against Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes. I don't see Wisconsin sweeping the stretch, but 3-1 isn't a bad bet.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Iowa

July, 15, 2010
Third in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams. Next up, Iowa.

UPDATE: Dates of games have been changed and are now accurate.

Key stretch: Penn State (Oct. 2), at Michigan (Oct. 16), Wisconsin (Oct. 23), Michigan State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: It's a little tricky identifying one key stretch in Iowa's schedule, because the Hawkeyes face a trap game Sept. 18 at Arizona and take on Northwestern and Ohio State, the two teams they lost to in 2009, in back-to-back weeks in November. But Iowa's stretch to open Big Ten play should determine whether the Black and Gold will be playing for the Rose Bowl or the Gator Bowl by the time the Wildcats and Buckeyes roll around. Three of these games take place at Kinnick Stadium, but I'd argue that Iowa played better away from home in 2009, particularly against Penn State and Wisconsin. Iowa dodged quite a few bullets at home last fall (Northern Iowa, Arkansas State, Michigan, Indiana) and needs to display better consistency. Penn State will be gunning for the upset after falling to Iowa the past two seasons. The Wisconsin-Iowa matchup could determine which team is the top contender to unseat Ohio State as Big Ten champ. Michigan State will be out for revenge after falling to Iowa on the final play last year in East Lansing. Sandwiched between these emotional games is a trip to Michigan, where Iowa has only won once since 1990.

Prediction: Iowa likely will be favored in at least three of these matchups, if not all four, and could put itself in an excellent position for another BCS bowl berth by going 4-0. The Hawkeyes always match up well against Penn State and get the Nittany Lions fairly early in the schedule, when a young Penn State quarterback will be adjusting to the limelight. Still, Penn State would love nothing more than to ruin Iowa's prime-time party. Michigan's offense gave Iowa some trouble last season, particularly Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter. The trip to Ann Arbor could be tricky. I expect very close contests against both Wisconsin and Michigan State, teams loaded with offensive skill players that will test Iowa's stout defense. It'd be tough to see Iowa losing more than one game during the stretch, but a 4-0 sweep will be tough as well. I'll go with 3-1.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Indiana

July, 13, 2010
My look at stretches that could make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams continues with the Indiana Hoosiers.

Key stretch: Arkansas State (Oct. 16), at Illinois (Oct. 23), Northwestern (Oct. 30).

Breakdown: Indiana's most pivotal game comes against Michigan on Oct. 2, but this stretch, following what will be a tough trip to Ohio State, should determine whether Bill Lynch's squad goes bowling or not. Arkansas State gave Iowa all it could handle last year, but the Red Wolves lose several key pieces, including defensive end Alex Carrington and running back Reggie Arnold. The Hoosiers must find a way to sweep a soft nonconference schedule before re-entering Big Ten play. Indiana notched its only Big Ten victory last year against Illinois and played some of its best ball on the road, only to lose leads against Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa and Penn State. Indiana should be able to put up points in Champaign, but must find a way to finish off the game. The Hoosiers upset Northwestern two years ago in Bloomington and built a 28-3 lead last year in Evanston before Northwestern mounted the biggest comeback in team history. A 3-0 mark is realistic for Indiana, and anything less than 2-1 would be extremely disappointing.

Prediction: I really like Indiana's offense heading into 2010, and despite a lot of concerns on defense, the Hoosiers will score enough to notch two wins during this stretch. A 1-2 or 0-3 run would really hurt Indiana's bowl chances, as the closing stretch won't be easy against Iowa (home), Wisconsin (road), Penn State (neutral, but virtual road game) and Purdue (road). Arkansas State should take a step back this year, and Ben Chappell and his receivers will take advantage at home. Indiana played well against both Illinois and Northwestern in 2009 and finds a way to split those two games, setting up a chance to reach the postseason with a big win or two down the stretch.

More key stretch

Key stretch: Illinois

July, 12, 2010
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.