Key stretch: Penn State

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

Next up, Penn State.

Key stretch: at Iowa (Oct. 2), Illinois (Oct. 9), at Minnesota (Oct. 23), Michigan (Oct. 30)

Breakdown: This isn't meant to minimize the Alabama game, but Penn State will still be finding its identity, particularly at quarterback, when it visits Tuscaloosa on Sept. 11. An upset victory against the Crimson Tide obviously boosts expectations in a big way, but no matter what happens, Penn State needs a strong start to Big Ten play (my rhymes are sick). Iowa has had Penn State's number in recent years, but this time, the Lions likely will be in the underdog role, looking to spoil Iowa's big dreams on a Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State's young quarterbacks already will have tasted a hostile environment at Alabama, so they should feel at least a bit more comfortable. The Lions also will have a better understanding of how they need to play when they head to Iowa City. A victory instantly makes Penn State a Big Ten title contender, in large part because of the next three games, against teams that combined to go 6-18 in Big Ten play in 2009. Penn State could be 4-0 heading into another big stretch against Northwestern and Ohio State in November. On the flip side, a loss to Iowa plus a loss to Alabama could put Penn State at 3-2 heading into the Illinois game. Another stumble or two during this stretch would lower the ceiling for Penn State's season, with Ohio State still lurking on the schedule.

Prediction: Regardless of what happens against Alabama, Penn State must go at least 3-1 during this stretch. And despite the questions at quarterback, offensive line and special teams, I think the Lions will get it done. Penn State has dropped seven of its last eight games to Iowa, and the Hawkeyes enter the season with more answers and higher hopes. But I'm interested to see if the Lions perform better as the underdog in this matchup. Penn State was the higher-ranked team in 2002, 2008 and 2009 when it lost to the Hawkeyes. The Lions should be very strong on defense, and if they can force Ricky Stanzi into mistakes and limit their own miscues on offense, they'll be right in the game. Penn State should be favored in the other three games, and the Lions are certainly stronger defensively than Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. The Lions need a strong performance from Tom Bradley's unit, especially against Michigan, and enough offense from Evan Royster and Co. to take care of business.

More key stretch