<
>

Key stretch: Iowa Hawkeyes

As we draw closer to the college football season, we've decided to take a closer look at the schedule of each Big Ten team. Namely, we're looking at each team's most critical three- or four-game stretch, why it's important and what the most likely outcome is.

Next up: Iowa

Key stretch: Minnesota on Nov. 14, Purdue on Nov. 21 and at Nebraska on Nov. 27

Breakdown: The Hawkeyes' finishing kick isn't quite as clear cut as it was in 2014, when they hosted Wisconsin and Nebraska in the final two weeks with the West Division title up for grabs. Still, Iowa's chances of getting to the Big Ten championship game likely will once again come down to the end.

The Floyd of Rosedale game with Minnesota looms large, as the Gophers' rise has perhaps shifted the balance of power in this series (or at least it did last year, when Iowa got blown out at TCF Bank Stadium). The Hawkeyes have to open Big Ten play at Wisconsin on Oct. 3, so the odds are pretty good that they won't be able to absorb a home loss to Minnesota and stay in the race.

The Purdue game doesn't look too imposing on paper, especially since it's at Kinnick. But it does set up as a classic Admiral Ackbar affair, sandwiched between two rivalry games.

Then there's the Black Friday showdown at Nebraska in the Heroes Game. The somewhat forced rivalry has produced some interesting moments already, including Iowa's upset in Lincoln two years ago and the Huskers' stunning comeback in Iowa City in 2014. So who knows what to expect from that one, though the new coaching staff at Nebraska could keep Big Red from experiencing its wild mood swings. Either way, this is probably a game Iowa has to win in order to produce a memorable season.

Prediction: 1-2. It's hardly great science to base future predictions on last year's results, but the way Iowa finished in 2014 still makes it hard to trust this team. Kirk Ferentz's club should be in the West Division race into November, seeing as how it boasts yet another golden schedule. If C.J. Beathard is the real deal at quarterback and the defense can tighten up a little bit, the Hawkeyes are going to remain a factor all year long. Still, I like Minnesota's trajectory and ceiling a bit better, and I think Nebraska has more talent, to go along with home-field advantage the day after Thanksgiving. Iowa could prove me wrong, but it still has a lot to prove.