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Key stretch: Michigan Wolverines

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The successes and failures of college football seasons always seem to boil down to a few big plays in a few big games during the year. As the 2015 season approaches, we’re taking a look at the three- or four-game stretches in each Big Ten team’s schedule where those make-or-break moments are most likely to occur.

Next up in the series is Michigan.

Key stretch: Michigan State on Oct. 17, at Minnesota on Oct. 31, Rutgers on Nov. 7

Breakdown: Late October and early November bring three straight chances for the Wolverines to avenges losses that stuck in their craw after the 2014 season. A loss to in-state rival Michigan State always stings. Minnesota embarrassed Michigan at the Big House last fall. And a potential sixth victory slipped away with a blocked field goal in the final minutes against Rutgers.

This fall, those three game represent an opportunity for Michigan to show it is growing back into a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. The total win count won’t make or break Jim Harbaugh’s first season at his alma mater. Success in 2015 is more about showing evidence that the program is headed in the right direction, regaining its ability to control lesser teams and compete with the top-level programs.

Michigan State bullied the Wolverines during the Brady Hoke era, especially when Michigan’s offense was on the field. The Spartans will be Harbaugh’s toughest test to date when they come to Michigan Stadium in October. The kinks that come with a team getting familiar with a new coaching staff should be worked out by that point in the season. Even a respectable showing against its rivals would be a positive outcome for Michigan this year.

Minnesota is once again a fringe contender in the Big Ten West. Last year, senior David Cobb ran for 183 yards in his team’s victory. He’s gone, and Michigan’s defense should be able to do a better job of containing the run game. Rutgers is replacing its quarterback after a solid eight-win debut in the conference a year ago. Both of these are matchups Michigan will have to win consistently before it is considered a top team in the Big Ten again.

Prediction: The swing game in this trio is a Halloween trip to Minnesota. Taking care of Rutgers at home shouldn’t be a problem. Michigan lacks the playmakers on offense this year to hang with Sparty. Going to Minnesota late in the season is a difficult task and a chance for this team to flex the toughness Harbaugh has been trying to instill since January. Michigan wins and goes 2-1 through this key stretch, leaving them with enough confidence to make the final few weeks of the season interesting.