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Key stretch: Minnesota

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

Next up, Minnesota.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin (Oct. 9), at Purdue (Oct. 16), Penn State (Oct. 23), Ohio State (Oct. 30)

Breakdown:The Gophers' tricky nonconference slate also could qualify, but this stretch is where things went wrong for Brew's crew in 2009. Minnesota opened Big Ten play with a nice road win against Northwestern before dropping three of its next four contests. Everyone knows about Tim Brewster's struggles in rivalry games, and arguably no contest means more to Gophers fans than Wisconsin. If Minnesota can upset the Badgers and claim Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003, I really believe it changes the complexion of the season. A road win at Camp Randall Stadium would give Minnesota players confidence that they can win the big game again. They then head to Purdue, where they won in 2008. Two wins to open the stretch would provide a major confidence boost heading into consecutive marquee home matchups against Penn State and Ohio State. Even a 2-2 split would give the Gophers a chance to finish strong. On the flip side, a slow start could easily send the Gophers to 0-4 during the stretch and might put a third consecutive bowl berth out of reach. These are the types of games Minnesota hasn't won for quite some time, and something needs to shift soon.

Prediction: Everything hinges on the Wisconsin trip. Minnesota should be a sizable underdog heading to Madison and likely will need a strong offensive performance against John Clay and the Badgers. This is a rivalry game, so anything can happen, but I have a tough time picking Minnesota here. The trip to Purdue might be a must-win for Brewster, whose team held the Boilers to six points in 2008. It's hard to expect a repeat shut-down performance, but Gophers quarterback Adam Weber and his teammates will have chances to attack Purdue's suspect defense. After facing USC on Sept. 18, Minnesota will be familiar with big-name teams coming into TCF Bank Stadium. Still, it's hard to see the Gophers upsetting Penn State or Ohio State.

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