Key stretch: Northwestern

We'll be under 75 days to kickoff this weekend. As we continue to count down toward the season, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

Coming up second in our series is Northwestern, which looks to get back on the bowl track after last year's 5-7 season.

Key stretch: Nebraska (Oct. 18), at Iowa (Nov. 1), Michigan (Nov. 8), at Notre Dame (Nov. 15)

Breakdown: The Wildcats do not get to ease their way into Big Ten play by any means as they open conference action at Penn State a week before hosting Wisconsin. The rubber really meets the road, though, in this four-game stretch spanning from mid-October to mid-November. Northwestern failed to win a game during a similar time span last season, effectively dooming its 2013 season. Expect the unexpected during this particular stretch. The first three games as fellow Big Ten members between Northwestern and Nebraska -- the NU series, if you will -- have been decided by a total of seven points and includes last year's Hail Mary. The Iowa-Northwestern series has developed into an underrated rivalry, and the two sides needed overtime in Iowa City last season. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have experienced major heartache in the last two years against Michigan, losing late leads on unbelievable plays by the Wolverines. Finally, Notre Dame plays Northwestern for the first time since 1995 in a rare November nonconference showdown. Both the Fighting Irish and Wildcats appear to love games that go down to the final minute.

Prediction: Anything is possible here, from 4-0 to 0-4. It's hard to imagine that Northwestern would have as much bad luck in 2014 as it did in '13, but this program has endured its share of collapses in big games over the years. Half the games are at Ryan Field, but because the Wildcats do not enjoy a great home-field advantage and often play well on the road, that doesn't seem to play a big factor here. Let's go with a 1-3 record as our safe prediction, but if Pat Fitzgerald's guys can go 2-2 or better in this stretch, they should have an excellent chance to return to the postseason, as they end the season with Purdue and Illinois.