Key stretch: Michigan

Eighth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Michigan.

Key stretch: Michigan State (Oct. 9), Iowa (Oct. 16), at Penn State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: Don't look at this and assume that I'm dismissing the importance of Michigan's first two games against Connecticut and Notre Dame. They're absolutely huge for the Wolverines and embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez, who needs at least a split to keep the hounds at bay. But even if Michigan starts 0-2, it should even its record before a big swing game on the road against Indiana. So Michigan could be anywhere from 5-0 to 2-3 as it prepares to host rival Michigan State. Rodriguez and the Wolverines need signature wins, and this stretch provides three opportunities. Michigan must avoid its first three-game losing streak to Michigan State since 1965-67. The Wolverines have the personnel to attack Michigan State's defense, but can they stop Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' numerous weapons? Iowa could be a top-10 team when it visits Ann Arbor, and Michigan will need a polished performance to pull off the upset. The Wolverines were one of few teams to run the ball well against Iowa, and Denard Robinson could be a big weapon in this one. After a well-placed bye week, the stretch concludes with a prime-time clash at Penn State, where Joe Paterno could be going for win No. 400. Michigan gets a big chance to show its improvement on a national stage. This stretch give us a good idea of Rodriguez's standing heading into November.

Prediction: Michigan figures to be the underdog in at least two of the games and very possibly all three. Rodriguez's offense backslid in Big Ten play last year and needs to produce, especially in the run game. Iowa and Penn State boast two of the Big Ten's best defensive lines, so Michigan's offensive front had better bring its A game. But the Wolverines can't expect to win shootouts every Saturday in the Big Ten. The defense has to get better, and this will be a telling stretch as all three opponents boast above-average rushing attacks. Michigan also must find ways to rattle Cousins, Ricky Stanzi and the yet-to-be-named young quarterback who starts for Penn State. Given the uncertainty on the Wolverines' defense, it's hard to see more than one win during this stretch. Michigan goes 1-2 or 2-1, but I'm leaning toward 1-2.

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