<
>

Key stretch: Nebraska Cornhuskers

As we draw nearer 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.

Up next: Nebraska

Key stretch: Wisconsin on Oct. 10, at Minnesota on Oct. 17, Northwestern Oct. 24

Breakdown: You don't have to tell Cornhuskers fans that the road to Indianapolis goes through Wisconsin.

The one time Nebraska made it to the Big Ten title game, it beat the Badgers at home in the regular season (only to get blown out by the same Wisconsin team at Lucas Oil Stadium). In 2011 and 2014, lopsided losses to that team in Madison proved costly to the Huskers' title hopes.

So it's fitting that Mike Riley's first Big Ten home game as Nebraska coach comes against the team that has given his new program fits in the recent past. That midseason test will set the parameters of the West race, and the Huskers have to be glad it's in Lincoln instead of their Madison house of horrors.

But Big Red can hardly put all its eggs in the beat-Wisconsin basket. That's because the next week brings a trip to Minnesota, a team that has handled (and in some ways manhandled) Nebraska in each of the past two years. I doubt there are many Huskers fans who could stomach a three-year losing streak to the Gophers, and Jerry Kill will be leading a serious West contender in 2015.

The final game of this stretch isn't as difficult on paper. But while Nebraska easily took care of Northwestern last season in Evanston, there have been some close games between these two in the recent past. And the Huskers could find themselves wheezing after what should be two very physical games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Prediction: 2-1. The arrival of a new coaching staff in Lincoln makes just about everything about Nebraska's season difficult to predict. Will Riley's even-keel demeanor keep his team from going through the emotional roller coaster and crash-and-burn games of his predecessors? Will he and new defensive coordinator Mark Banker find a way to counter the smash-mouth running games of Wisconsin and Minnesota that have bedeviled the Huskers of late? It's hard to say for sure. But I have a feeling Nebraska will find a way to beat either the Badgers or Gophers and will turn back Northwestern at home. Such a showing is critical to keep the Huskers in the West Division race and make November meaningful.