Key stretch: Michigan State

July is nearly upon us, which means the college football season is inching ever closer. As we continue to breathlessly count down the days until kickoff, we're looking at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch on the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Today, the defending league champion Michigan State Spartans get their turn in the spotlight.

Key stretch: Michigan (Oct. 25), Ohio State (Nov. 8), at Maryland (Nov. 15)

Breakdown: The Spartans' schedule doesn't include a lot of rugged three- or four-game stretches on paper. The early-season showdown at Oregon is sandwiched between games against Jacksonville State and Eastern Michigan. The Big Ten opener versus Nebraska is followed by a trip to lowly Purdue. Even the massive Ohio State faceoff is preceded by a bye week, and Michigan State plays league newbies Maryland and Rutgers after tackling the Buckeyes. Still, this three-game span could very well define not only the Spartans' season, but also the complexion of the East Division race.

It begins against old rival Michigan in a series Michigan State has dominated of late -- Mark Dantonio's team has beaten the Wolverines in five of the past six meetings, including the last three in East Lansing. Then, of course, comes what looks like the conference game of the year on Nov. 8 in a rematch of the Big Ten championship game. A division title and maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff could be on the line against Ohio State. The visit to Maryland doesn't look nearly as important as the other two, but the Spartans will have to be wary of an emotional letdown after the Ohio State game, especially with a road trip to unfamiliar territory on deck a week later.

Prediction: The good news for Dantonio's team is that strong defense rarely takes a week off, so Michigan State should be prepared to take on any tough stretch -- provided, of course, Pat Narduzzi's defense can adequately replace all the stars it lost from the Rose Bowl championship squad. You have to like the Spartans' chances of beating Michigan again, particularly at home. They just seem to have the Wolverines' number right now. The Ohio State game is basically a toss-up, and it's tough to predict which team will be better in early November before the calendar even flips to July, especially since both sides have some major shoes to fill. Still, I'm inclined to give Michigan State a slight edge because the game is at Spartan Stadium. Dantonio's guys should be too experienced in big situations to have a letdown at Maryland, though the Terps might have the offensive firepower to spring a surprise. I'll say Michigan State goes 3-0 in this stretch, which could equal another trip to Indianapolis if it comes to pass.