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Strong starts likely for Big Ten in 2010

As I compiled the Big Ten spring practice review -- coming Wednesday -- I had a chance to peruse the schedules for each team. And while the Big Ten is slowly beefing up its nonconference schedule for the future, most teams once again will play soft September slates in 2010.

It's likely that all 11 Big Ten squads will open league play Oct. 2 with winning records. At least four teams should be undefeated, and any team with two losses or more could be in for a very long season.

Here's a look at the September snapshots around the Big Ten. The benchmark is what I deem to be the minimum number of wins for each squad to reach its ultimate goal in the season.

ILLINOIS

  • September sked: vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois

  • Benchmark: 2 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 2-1

  • Comment: Illinois has to come out of the opening stretch with at least two victories. For the second straight year, the Illini begin Big Ten play with a brutal stretch -- Ohio State, at Penn State, at Michigan State -- so they need to build some early confidence to have a shot at a bowl.

INDIANA

  • September sked: Towson, at Western Kentucky, Akron

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 3-0

  • Comment: Indiana has the easiest opening slate in the Big Ten and quite possibly the country, so anything less than a 3-0 start is unacceptable. If the Hoosiers want to get over the hump in 2010 and keep head coach Bill Lynch around, they need to take care of business early.

IOWA

  • September sked: Eastern Illinois, Iowa State, at Arizona, Ball State

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 4-0

  • Comment: The Arizona game will be very tough, as Big Ten teams traditionally struggle when traveling west for night games. Iowa also must handle in-state rival Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium, which is never an easy game, but should be a win. It would be very surprising to see the Hawkeyes lose more than one game in September.

MICHIGAN

  • September sked: Connecticut, at Notre Dame, Massachusetts, Bowling Green

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 3-1

  • Comment: You can't understate the significance of Michigan's first two games. An 0-2 start could seal head coach Rich Rodriguez's fate, while a 2-0 surge will elevate hopes for a turnaround, at least until Big Ten play begins. Connecticut provides a good test, and Notre Dame is about as mysterious as Michigan right now. I see a split in the first two, followed by wins against UMass and Bowling Green.

MICHIGAN STATE

  • September sked: Western Michigan, vs. Florida Atlantic (at Detroit), Notre Dame, Northern Colorado

  • Benchmark: 4 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 4-0

  • Comment: Notre Dame might be decent, but Michigan State should be disappointed with anything less than a 4-0 start. A Fighting Irish team filled with question marks comes to Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State won the teams' last meeting rather handily. If the Spartans want to capitalize on a very favorable overall schedule, they need to take care of the Irish.

MINNESOTA

  • September sked: at Middle Tennessee, South Dakota, USC, Northern Illinois

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 2-2

  • Comment: Minnesota plays the Big Ten's toughest overall schedule in 2010, and the Gophers will be challenged from the get-go. Middle Tennessee is a very solid non-BCS team, and Minnesota will be going into a hornet's nest on a Thursday night in Murfreesboro. USC could light up an unproven defense, and Northern Illinois is no pushover. But if Minnesota wants to make this a better-than-average year, it needs at least three wins.

NORTHWESTERN

  • September sked: at Vanderbilt, Illinois State, at Rice, Central Michigan

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 3-1

  • Comment: Northwestern is the only Big Ten team to play two true road games in September, but Vanderbilt and Rice aren't exactly Alabama and Texas. If the Wildcats want to make an unprecedented third consecutive bowl appearance, they can't afford more than one slip-up. NU endures its standard flop, but finds ways to win the other three.

OHIO STATE

  • September sked: Marshall, Miami (Fla.), Ohio, Eastern Michigan

  • Benchmark: 4 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 4-0

  • Comment: Is a 4-0 benchmark too steep with Miami on the schedule? Not for an Ohio State team that considers itself a legit national title contender. Miami has talent, but I was unimpressed with what I saw in the Champs Sports Bowl, and Ohio State should handle this team in Columbus.

PENN STATE

  • September sked: Youngstown State, at Alabama, Kent State, Temple

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 3-1

  • Comment: It's unrealistic to expect a Penn State team with an inexperienced quarterback to win in Tuscaloosa against the defending national champs. The Nittany Lions also could be tested by Temple, but they should emerge from the month at 3-1. If not, Penn State will be in for some major struggles during Big Ten play.

PURDUE

  • September sked: at Notre Dame, Western Illinois, Ball State, Toledo

  • Benchmark: 3 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 3-1

  • Comment: Nonconference play killed the Boilermakers in 2009, but they should be poised for a better showing, as long as their health holds up. The opener at Notre Dame will be tough -- the Irish usually find a way to win those ones -- but the next three games are must-wins if Purdue intends to end its bowl drought (since 2007).

WISCONSIN

  • September sked: at UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay

  • Benchmark: 4 wins

  • Way-too-early prediction: 4-0

  • Comment: The Badgers get knocked for playing soft schedules, and their September slate this fall is no exception. Arizona State will provide a challenge, but Wisconsin is nearly unbeatable at home under Bret Bielema and boasts enough firepower on both sides to handle the Sun Devils. Wisconsin's other three opponents went a combined 11-24 last season.