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Toughest stretch: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The realistic goals might not all be the same, but across the league, every team at some point has to face a crucial stretch to reach its potential.

Whether it’s simply making it to a bowl game or trying to win the Big Ten and head to the College Football Playoff, there’s a three- or four-game, make-or-break portion of the schedule that is going to determine that fate for everybody.

All week long, the Big Ten reporting crew is identifying those pivotal weeks around the conference and what they might mean this fall. Up next: Rutgers.

Toughest stretch: Iowa (Sept. 24), at Ohio State (Oct. 1), Michigan (Oct. 8)

Why: Unlike its first two years in the Big Ten, Rutgers' toughest stretch in 2016 doesn't feel like a death march. Take last year's stretch against Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan and vs. Nebraska, when the Scarlet Knights lost all four games by a combined score of 177-47. Still, this three-week stretch to begin Big Ten play will tell us how new coach Chris Ash's team stacks up.

Start with the league opener against Iowa, the first-ever meeting between these schools. It's at High Point Solutions Stadium, so Rutgers will have a chance. Still, the Hawkeyes are the defending West Division champs, coming off a 12-0 season, and they'll bring a veteran team with a proven quarterback in C.J. Beathard into Piscataway.

The fun continues the following two weeks with a pair of the East Division behemoths. Ash knows all about Ohio State, having served as the Buckeyes' co-defensive coordinator the previous two seasons. That doesn't mean he'll know a way to steal a victory in the Horseshoe. Rutgers' first two games against Ohio State as a Big Ten member haven't been remotely competitive, and now the Scarlet Knights will basically be playing the same style as the Buckeyes only with far less talent. Good luck.

Rutgers famously beat Michigan the last time the Wolverines came to New Jersey, a landmark victory for the program. Still, that was Brady Hoke's dysfunctional Maize & Blue outfit, not Jim Harbaugh's burgeoning buzz saw. You know this one will be extra important for the locals, as Michigan has come in and swiped Garden State stars such as Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary. It will be a night game, and Scarlet Knights fans will bring as much juice as they possible can. Yet Michigan is a veteran and talented team that some are picking to win the Big Ten this year.

Rutgers will be an underdog in all three games, perhaps a two-touchdown 'dog in the latter two. At least two of them are at home. If the Scarlet Knights want to start making some noise in their new league, they will need to start knocking off some of the top contenders. We'll see if Ash can lead them to any progress on that front.