Key stretch: Michigan

The 2014 season continues to creep closer, and we're putting each Big Ten team's schedule under the microscope. Specifically, we're looking at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each league squad.

Next up is Michigan, a team trying to rebound after seeing its win total decline in each of the past two seasons.

Key stretch: Penn State on Oct. 11, at Michigan State on Oct. 25, Indiana on Nov. 1, at Northwestern on Nov. 8

Breakdown: Michigan's three biggest games are road contests against rivals that are nicely spread out -- Notre Dame (Sept. 6), Michigan State (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 29) -- so it's a little tougher to identify a key stretch. But the Wolverines have an opportunity to rack up some wins after the Notre Dame contest, as they should be heavily favored against Miami (Ohio), Utah and Rutgers, and they always seems to have Minnesota's number. The key stretch begins with a home night game against Penn State, which stunned Michigan under the lights last year at Beaver Stadium. Like the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions are somewhat of a mystery team, but they have a quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) who gives them a chance.

The open week seems to fall at a good time before Michigan travels to Michigan State for the second consecutive season. Michigan's 29-6 loss last November wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated, as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rush yards, the lowest single-game total in team history. This year's contest is a huge game for the embattled offensive line and new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Michigan can't look past Indiana, which racked up 47 points and 572 yards last year at the Big House. The Northwestern trip also should be tricky as the Wildcats had Michigan beat in each of the last two seasons, only to let the Wolverines off the hook.

Prediction: Michigan is one of the tougher Big Ten teams to gauge, which makes this exercise even more difficult. If the offensive issues stabilize and Michigan has an effective run game to complement Devin Gardner, it could sweep this stretch and challenge for the East Division title. But it's asking a lot for the Wolverines to win in East Lansing, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has been Jim Tressel-like in how he approaches the Michigan rivalry. Michigan has been much better at home than on the road under Brady Hoke. It's 3-1 vs. 2-2 for me, and I'm leaning toward 2-2 for this stretch.