Key stretch: Purdue

It's July, which means college football is drawing nigh (tangent: has anyone ever used the word "nigh" in an actual conversation?). As we count down to kickoff, we're taking a look at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each Big Ten squad.

Next up in our series: the Purdue Boilermakers

Key stretch: Western Michigan (Aug. 30), Central Michigan (Sept. 6), vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 13), Southern Illinois (Sept. 20)

Breakdown: This is the oddest key stretch of games you'll see in this series, as it includes two MAC opponents, one FCS school and zero Big Ten teams. Why? Because Purdue, coming off a disastrous 1-11 season, simply needs all the wins it can gather in Year 2 of the Darrell Hazell era, and this stretch provides the best opportunity. A much easier nonconference slate than the one that featured Cincinnati, Northern Illinois and the Irish a year ago means that the Boilermakers can triple their victory total from last year just by beating the teams it will be favored against.

Western Michigan also went 1-11 last year, so Purdue has no excuse in its opener. Central Michigan is coming off a 6-6 campaign, though that did include a 50-point loss to Michigan. Again, at Ross-Ade Stadium, that's a game Hazell's team must win to gain any credibility. Playing Notre Dame in Indianapolis won't be easy, and the Irish have won the last six in this series. But Purdue did take the Irish to the wire last year in West Lafayette in one of the year's most inexplicable results. Southern Illinois was a middling FCS team last year. But the Salukis did throw a scare into Illinois in the 2013 opener, and the Boilers can't afford to overlook anyone.

Prediction: This is frankly the kind of nonconference schedule Purdue needed last year, though the results might not have been much better. Hazell's 2013 squad was historically bad in almost every area, so predicting the 2014 version to string wins together against any competition requires at least some optimism. Yet there should be some progress after that severely disappointing first year, and the lack of any early road games is helpful. Big Ten teams ought to be weary of MAC upsets, and the Broncos and Chippewas won't be intimidated at Ross-Ade. We'll predict that Purdue suffers one MAC attack, but takes care of business in the other two homes games and loses to a far more talented Notre Dame squad. A 2-2 nonconference record still represents a step forward, and perhaps the Boilermakers can pull off an upset or two in Big Ten play to build some program momentum.