Key stretch: Penn State

We know the season seems like it will never get here, but we’ll help the time tick away faster by looking ahead to what’s in store. So, as we inch closer to that first kickoff, we’re taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Up Friday are the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Key stretch: Northwestern (Sept. 27), at Michigan (Oct. 11), Ohio State (Oct. 25), Maryland (Nov. 1)

Breakdown: Will Penn State once again shock the Big Ten? Or will this season be mediocre, or below average, for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions? Chances are that will be determined by this four-game stretch. Penn State opens with a relatively soft four games -- Central Florida, Akron, Rutgers, UMass -- and should come away with no more than one loss. But after that stretch is when it gets tricky. Penn State continues the conference season with a Northwestern team that’s better than last season’s record indicates -- far from a guaranteed win -- before it heads to the Big House and then, after a bye week, squares off against an Ohio State team that embarrassed it 63-14 a year ago. Oh, and then comes a potentially great Maryland offense. There’s no room to breathe in this early conference schedule, and it will be immediately sink or swim for Franklin’s crew. If they can pull out three wins here, they’ll likely finish near the top of the East Division. But if they falter? If they drop three games here? An overall winning record won’t be easy to come by.

Prediction: Does anyone really give Penn State a shot against the Buckeyes? Sure, anything can happen, but a win here is just not very likely. Chalk up a loss there. As for Michigan and Maryland, the Lions should at least be able to claim one there. Neither pass defense is particularly dangerous and, as long as the offensive line gives Christian Hackenberg some time, he should be able to engineer a victory. Northwestern is a trap game, and the Wildcats have a penchant for close ones, but Penn State gets the slight advantage. So, overall, Penn State likely comes out of this stretch with two wins. Not great -- but not terrible, either.