Big Ten: BT key stretch 11

Key stretch: Wisconsin

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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The key stretch series, which examines a series of games that could make or break the season for each Big Ten team, wraps up with the Wisconsin Badgers.

Key stretch: Nebraska (Oct. 1), Indiana (Oct. 15), at Michigan State (Oct. 22), at Ohio State (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: Like many other Big Ten teams, Wisconsin will be tested throughout the month of October. Things kick off with a national showcase game against Nebraska, which will be playing its first conference game as a Big Ten member under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium. Many see this as a preview of the inaugural Big Ten championship game, but it's huge for Wisconsin to defend its home turf against the Huskers. The Badgers enjoy an open week and host Indiana before playing their first true road game of the season against Michigan State at night. Another road night game follows the next week against Ohio State. Wisconsin has dropped three consecutive games at Spartan Stadium, including its only regular-season loss of 2010, and is 7-28-3 all-time at Ohio Stadium.

Prediction: I see Wisconsin going 3-1 in this stretch, although a 2-2 split also is possible. The Badgers have been so dominant at home under Bret Bielema, and while the Nebraska game could go either way, Wisconsin gets the edge at Camp Randall. The season really could come down to the back-to-back road night games. Wisconsin has struggled in East Lansing and Columbus, but the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson should help in two very tough environments. I see the Badgers winning their home games and splitting on the road.

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Key stretch: Purdue

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
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Here's the 11th installment of our series examining a stretch of games that could make or break the season for each Big Ten team.

Up next, the Purdue Boilermakers.

Key stretch: Minnesota (Oct. 8), at Penn State (Oct. 15), Illinois (Oct. 22), at Michigan (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: This stretch presents a great opportunity for Purdue, as none of the games are guaranteed losses. But if the Boilers stumble badly in October, November greets them with contests against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. Purdue should be no worse than 3-1 and possibly 4-0 when Minnesota visits Ross-Ade Stadium. It's critical the Boilers handle the Gophers before visiting Penn State, where they look for their first win since 2004. Illinois should have a strong record when it travels to West Lafayette the next week, and Purdue will need a much more polished performance after being crushed 44-10 last year in Champaign. The stretch concludes with a visit to Michigan Stadium, where Purdue in 2009 recorded its first victory since 1966. Sadly, there won't be a Danny Hope-Rich Rodriguez post-game exchange this time.

Prediction: I see Purdue beating Minnesota and losing to Penn State, while the next two games are toss-ups. The Boilers will have a better team than the one that faced Illinois in 2010, although the Illini could be one of the Big Ten's surprises this year. Michigan will be coming off an open week before playing its only home game in a critical four-game stretch. Purdue ends up splitting the stretch at 2-2, although a 3-1 mark wouldn't shock me.

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Key stretch: Michigan State

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
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Time for the 10th installment of our series looking at a key stretch of the schedule for each Big Ten team in 2011.

Let's gander at the Michigan State Spartans.

Key stretch: at Ohio State (Oct.1), Michigan (Oct. 15), Wisconsin (Oct. 22), at Nebraska (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: Well, we won't have to wait long to find out if the Spartans are good enough to contend for a Big Ten championship this year. Their opening four-game stretch is as tough as it gets in the league, with extremely difficult road games in Columbus and Lincoln, a rivalry game with the Wolverines and another showdown with Wisconsin, which suffered its only 2010 regular-season loss in East Lansing. At least there's one bye week in there, because all four of these games will be highly emotional, physical contests. The Spartans also catch a little bit of a break by playing Ohio State before the Buckeyes get their suspended players back, but that's about as much of a break as this brutal stretch provides.

Prediction: On the plus side, Michigan State has beaten Michigan three straight times and gets the Wolverines at home. The Spartans also get the Badgers on their own turf for the second straight time. But they've had no success against Ohio State the past seven years and have rarely come close against the Buckeyes. And they will be walking into a buzz saw in Lincoln, potentially. An 0-4 record seems more plausible than 4-0. But I'm going to give Michigan State another in-state win over Michigan and say they pull one other one off to get through this at 2-2 and still alive in the Big Ten Legends Division race.

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Key stretch: Indiana

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
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Ninth in a series that examines a stretch of games that could make or break the season for each Big Ten team.

Up next, Indiana

Key stretch: Penn State (Oct. 1), Illinois (Oct. 8), at Wisconsin (Oct. 15), at Iowa (Oct. 22)

Breakdown: The Hoosiers might have the Big Ten’s toughest road schedule -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan -- so they need to play well at Memorial Stadium to have a realistic shot at reaching a bowl game. Big Ten play opens with consecutive home contests against Penn State and Illinois, teams that could challenge in the Leaders division but also have some question marks. Illinois will be playing its first road game Oct. 8. Indiana then travels to Madison, where it got embarrassed 83-20 last season. First-year coach Kevin Wilson has the need to turn the page on the past, but Hoosiers players haven’t forgotten what happened the last time they faced Wisconsin. The stretch wraps up with a trip to Kinnick Stadium, where Indiana played well in 2009 before a fourth-quarter collapse. If Wilson wants to get some buzz in Bloomington, IU needs to win at least one of these.

Prediction: The Hoosiers will be underdogs in all four games, and they have more question marks than any of their opponents. But a favorable September schedule provides a chance to gain confidence, particularly on defense. It wouldn't shock me if Indiana splits the home games, so I'll go with 1-3.

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Key stretch: Minnesota

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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Time for the eighth part in our series looking at a key stretch of the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Minnesota, this post's for you.

Key stretch: at Michigan (Oct. 1), at Purdue (Oct. 8), Nebraska (Oct. 22), Iowa (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: Let's say for the sake of argument that the Golden Gophers' goal in Jerry Kill's first year will be to get to six wins and a bowl game. And let's say that Minnesota will lose the opener to USC but win its next three at home against New Mexico State, Miami of Ohio and North Dakota State for a 3-1 start. That makes this opening four-game stretch to the Big Ten season important, so Kill can get his team another win or two toward bowl eligibility and not dig a morale-reducing early hole. Unless Michigan is wildly improved, the Gophers will at least have a chance in both of the road games here. They figure to be underdogs in the two home contests, but you know they will be fired up to host Nebraska for the first time in Big Ten play, and Minnesota did take Floyd of Rosedale at home against the Hawkeyes last year.

Prediction: A record of 2-2 or better in this stretch would have to be considered a success, considering that would mean Minnesota has beaten Michigan, Iowa or Nebraska. It is difficult to predict, however, just what to expect from a team with an entirely new coaching staff. I think Kill will lead his team to at least one upset in Big Ten play, maybe one in which MarQueis Gray goes nuts on somebody. But I'm going to give his team just a 1-3 record in this stretch. If so, the Gophers will have to hunt for bowl-clinching wins late in the season.

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Key stretch: Northwestern

August, 11, 2011
8/11/11
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Time for the seventh part of our series examining a stretch of the schedule that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Here's looking at you, Northwestern.

Key stretch: at Illinois (Oct. 1), Michigan (Oct. 8), at Iowa (Oct. 15), Penn State (Oct. 22)

Breakdown: Northwestern might have tougher games than these on the schedule (the road game at Nebraska and the finale against Michigan State come to mind) but this four-week stretch to open Big Ten play will likely determine how the Wildcats' season will play out. All four look like winnable games. Northwestern has won six of its past eight games against Illinois, beat Michigan the last time the two met in 2008, has taken the past three games it has played in Iowa City and gets Penn State on homecoming. A sweep here would leave the Wildcats in great shape no matter what happens against Nebraska and Michigan State, because the other two league games are against Indiana and Minnesota.

Prediction: Having winnable games and actually winning them are two different things. Illinois has a chance to be 4-0 and will have all but grown roots in Champaign when the Wildcats come to town. Michigan will be a tough test and Iowa is never a pushover despite Northwestern's unusual success against the Hawkeyes. And Penn State has owned Northwestern since coming to the Big Ten. If Pat Fitzgerald's team could win all four of these games, it could conceivably be 8-0 heading to Lincoln on Nov. 5. But I'd rate all of these as toss-ups, and playing all four without a break makes 2-2 or 3-1 seem more likely. I'll take 2-2 unless Dan Persa goes berserk.

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Key stretch: Ohio State

August, 5, 2011
8/05/11
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Time for the sixth part of our series examining a stretch of the schedule that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Let's take a look at Ohio State.

Key stretch: Michigan State (Oct. 1), at Nebraska (Oct. 8), at Illinois (Oct. 15), Wisconsin (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: If the Buckeyes are going to win at least a share of their seventh straight Big Ten title, they'll have to survive this four-game October gauntlet. Suspended players Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas will miss the Michigan State game but will return for the road showdown at Nebraska. Revenge will be on Ohio State's minds when Wisconsin comes to Columbus, but if the Bucks aren't careful, the road game at Illinois could be a trap. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State are the three highest-ranked teams in the Big Ten other than Ohio State and the most obvious contenders for the league crown. By the time Halloween rolls around, Ohio State will know exactly where it stands in the conference race.

Prediction: These are four tough games -- well, at least three difficult ones, depending on how Illinois shapes up -- and it's very difficult to predict how Ohio State will fare. The Buckeyes could be a vastly different team between the Michigan State and Nebraska game because it gets those suspended players back. The Cornhuskers and their fans will be unbelievably stoked for the first-ever Big Ten game in Lincoln as the league's biggest heavyweight comes to town. If Ohio State can hold serve at home and not fall victim to the upset in Champaign, it will come out of this in great shape. Even a 2-2 record wouldn't be fatal if the Buckeyes can beat their division rivals Wisconsin and Illinois. With all the uncertainty surrounding this team, I'll take the conservative 2-2 pick, though 3-1 or better certainly would not shock anybody.

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Key stretch: Penn State

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
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We continue our series examining a stretch of the schedule that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Come on down, Penn State Nittany Lions.

Key stretch: Illinois (Oct. 29), Nebraska (Nov. 12), at Ohio State (Nov. 19), at Wisconsin (Nov. 26).

Breakdown: The Nittany Lions have a marquee early nonconference game against Alabama in Week 2, but when it comes to their Big Ten fate, it's all about the end of the season. Penn State has a chance to get off to a good start in league play with winnable road games at Indiana and Northwestern and home dates with Iowa and Purdue. Joe Paterno will have to hope that some of his younger players like Silas Redd, Gerald Hodges and Rob Bolden are all grown up for the final four games of the season, however. Illinois could be in Leaders Division contention by the time it gets to Happy Valley thanks to a favorable early schedule. Then the final three games comprise what looks like the most difficult closing run for any Big Ten team, as the Lions must play host to Nebraska before finishing on the road in Columbus and Madison. Staying healthy for that stretch drive will be critical.

Prediction: In a best-case scenario, Penn State would win its first five Big Ten games and then merely need to escape those final three games at 2-1 or even 1-2 to still have a chance at claiming the Leaders title. I like the home matchup with Illinois, and Nebraska will have to deal with a likely raucous atmosphere at Beaver Stadium. Playing Ohio State so late in the year is a disadvantage, since the Buckeyes will have all their suspended players back and should have their quarterback situation ironed out well before the Nittany Lions come to town. Going to Camp Randall with potentially major division title ramifications won't be easy, either. If Penn State gets through this stretch at no worse than 2-2, it has to be considered a victory. A 1-3 record seems very possible, however.

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Key stretch: Iowa

August, 2, 2011
8/02/11
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Fourth in a series examining a stretch that could make the season for each Big Ten team.

Next up, the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Key stretch: Michigan (Nov. 5), Michigan State (Nov. 12), at Purdue (Nov. 19), at Nebraska (Nov. 25)

Breakdown: While I know how much Iowa fans want to continue their win streak against Penn State (Oct. 8) and end their slide against Northwestern (Oct. 15), they'll get a better gauge on their team during the final month of the season. Iowa's schedule is very favorable, especially in September and October, but November brings three Legends division games and a trip to protected rival Purdue, which should be improved if it can stay healthy. Iowa has never won three straight games against Michigan, so the first game brings a historic opportunity for the Hawkeyes. A week later, Michigan State visits Kinnick Stadium hoping to avenge last season's 37-6 defeat to Iowa. The game could have major implications in the Legends division. After the trip to Purdue, Iowa visits Nebraska in the inaugural Heroes Game on Black Friday. There should be a lot on the line for both teams in Lincoln.

Prediction: Iowa should be a more seasoned team by this stretch, particularly in the offensive backfield and along the defensive line. Both Michigan and Michigan State will test the Hawkeyes' defense, but having the games at home is huge for Kirk Ferentz's squad. Iowa must be careful of Purdue, a classic trap game, and winning in Lincoln won't be easy. I see 3-1 and 2-2 as the likely outcomes for Iowa, but I'm leaning toward a 3-1 performance during the stretch.

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Key stretch: Nebraska

July, 28, 2011
7/28/11
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Third in a series that examines a stretch that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Next up, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin (Oct. 1), Ohio State (Oct. 8), at Minnesota (Oct. 22), Michigan State (Oct. 29)

Breakdown: We'll learn a lot about the Big Ten's newest member during the Huskers' first month in the league. Although this stretch features only two Legends division games -- I've harped on the importance of division play and will continue to do so -- Nebraska will face three teams likely appearing in the preseason top 20. The Big Ten opener in Madison provides Nebraska with an immediate taste of the raucous road environments it will face in the Big Ten. Many also see the Wisconsin game as a preview of the inaugural Big Ten championship game in December. Nebraska then returns home to host Ohio State under the lights. Ohio State will get Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas back from suspension in Lincoln. After an open week and a trip to Minnesota, Nebraska hosts defending Big Ten co-champion Michigan State in a game that could decide the Legends division.

Prediction: October certainly provides a stern test for the Huskers, who have several chances to prove themselves in their new league. The good news is Nebraska faces both Ohio State and Michigan State in Lincoln, while Wisconsin won't be too battle tested when the Huskers visit Camp Randall Stadium. Nebraska should handle Minnesota after the open week. I'm looking at 3-1 or 2-2 for the Huskers during the stretch, leaning toward 3-1, which should put them in good shape for a trip to Indy.

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Key stretch: Michigan

July, 26, 2011
7/26/11
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Second in a series that examines a stretch that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Next up, the Michigan Wolverines.

Key stretch: at Northwestern (Oct. 8), at Michigan State (Oct. 15), Purdue (Oct. 29), at Iowa (Nov. 5)

Breakdown: Michigan opens with five consecutive home games and has a chance to build some confidence under new coach Brady Hoke. But as the past two seasons have shown, fast starts by the Wolverines don't mean much if the team flounders in October. Michigan plays three Legends division road games in a four-game span beginning Oct. 8 against Northwestern and All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa, who will test the Wolverines' defense. Hoke's first countdown clock expires the next week as Michigan visits East Lansing and tries to end a three-game slide against rival Michigan State. After an open week, Michigan faces a key home game against Purdue before visiting Iowa, which will aim for its first-ever three-game win streak against the Maize and Blue. Michigan's ability to win on the road will determine whether it sinks or swims in division play this fall.

Prediction: This stretch should provide a barometer on Michigan's defense, which will face standout quarterbacks Persa and Kirk Cousins on the road, as well as an improved Purdue offense and an Iowa squad always tough to beat at Kinnick Stadium. A sweep seems unlikely, but Michigan should find a way to avoid another October collapse as well. The Northwestern game could swing things in either direction, but 2-2 is a decent bet.

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Key stretch: Illinois

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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The key stretch series is back! We'll be taking a look at a stretch of games in each Big Ten team's schedule that could make or break the season.

Let's get things kicked off with Illinois.

Key stretch: Ohio State (Oct. 15), at Purdue (Oct. 22), at Penn State (Oct. 29), Michigan (Nov. 12)

Breakdown: The schedule finally is on Illinois' side this season, as the Illini avoid Missouri and open with five consecutive home games and six of their first seven at Memorial Stadium. A strong start is likely, but things get a bit tougher in October. After making its first road trip to Indiana, Illinois returns home to face Ohio State, a team the Illini typically play tough. A victory against the Buckeyes could raise the bar on how far Illinois could go this fall. Illinois then visits Purdue, which should be an improved team and hasn't forgotten last year's lopsided loss in Champaign. The Illini then return to State College, where last year they won for the first time in team history. Penn State should have a more cohesive offense than the unit Illinois shut down last October. After an open week, the stretch concludes with Michigan, a team many Illini fans consider their top rival. Illinois and Michigan combined for 132 points in last year's triple overtime shootout at the Big House. The schedule sets up for Illinois to return to a bowl, game, but the team's performance during these four games can take a good season to great, or an average season to poor.

Prediction: Illinois catches Ohio State after the Buckeyes face Michigan State and Nebraska to open Big Ten play, but Luke Fickell's team will have its suspended players back on the field. Expect another low-scoring affair that could go Illinois' way if quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase raises his game. Both Purdue and Penn State should be improved, and Michigan is a bit of a wild card. I don't see Illinois sweeping the stretch or going winless. A 2-2 split seems likely.

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