Key stretch: Northwestern

Time for the seventh part of our series examining a stretch of the schedule that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Here's looking at you, Northwestern.

Key stretch: at Illinois (Oct. 1), Michigan (Oct. 8), at Iowa (Oct. 15), Penn State (Oct. 22)

Breakdown: Northwestern might have tougher games than these on the schedule (the road game at Nebraska and the finale against Michigan State come to mind) but this four-week stretch to open Big Ten play will likely determine how the Wildcats' season will play out. All four look like winnable games. Northwestern has won six of its past eight games against Illinois, beat Michigan the last time the two met in 2008, has taken the past three games it has played in Iowa City and gets Penn State on homecoming. A sweep here would leave the Wildcats in great shape no matter what happens against Nebraska and Michigan State, because the other two league games are against Indiana and Minnesota.

Prediction: Having winnable games and actually winning them are two different things. Illinois has a chance to be 4-0 and will have all but grown roots in Champaign when the Wildcats come to town. Michigan will be a tough test and Iowa is never a pushover despite Northwestern's unusual success against the Hawkeyes. And Penn State has owned Northwestern since coming to the Big Ten. If Pat Fitzgerald's team could win all four of these games, it could conceivably be 8-0 heading to Lincoln on Nov. 5. But I'd rate all of these as toss-ups, and playing all four without a break makes 2-2 or 3-1 seem more likely. I'll take 2-2 unless Dan Persa goes berserk.

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