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Toughest stretch: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The realistic goals might not all be the same, but across the league, every team at some point has to face a crucial stretch to reach its potential.

Whether it’s simply making it to a bowl game or trying to win the Big Ten and head to the College Football Playoff, there’s a three-game or four-game, make-or-break portion of the schedule that is going to determine that fate for everybody.

All week long, the Big Ten reporting crew is identifying those pivotal weeks around the conference and what they might mean this fall. Up next: Minnesota.

Toughest stretch: The last three weeks of November (at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Wisconsin).

Why: The Big Ten's West Division race might be a wide-open affair this fall, and there’s no reason the Gophers couldn’t potentially climb into the mix with a stingy defense, a veteran quarterback and Tracy Claeys putting his own mark on the program in his first full year in charge.

But even if Minnesota can survive some early challenges and put itself in position to compete for a title late in the year, there’s a pretty good chance the brutal three-week segment waiting at the end of November might be too much to handle. The Gophers will have already had a chance to prove themselves against the reigning division champs after hosting Iowa in October, but three more viable contenders are all stacked up in a row waiting to close the regular season. Two of those games on the road, one of which is a rivalry game in a series that hasn’t been too kind to them lately.

With the Axe on the line, the stakes will always be high for the Gophers against Wisconsin, though the pressure seems to be building every year that they fail to reclaim it, with the drought now at 12 games. But the opportunity to meet the Badgers with more on the line figures to be determined during the previous two weeks, hinging on whether or not a talented secondary can slow down Tommy Armstrong and a much-improved Nebraska squad and if Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner can find any way to pick apart Northwestern’s fearsome defense.

Claeys has a favorable enough slate to work with, and he should have the Gophers comfortably in position to get back to a bowl game again this fall. And depending on just how quickly they wrap that up, that gauntlet waiting at the end of the regular season could get even more interesting.