Fifth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.
Next up, Purdue.
Key stretch: Toledo (Sept. 25), at Northwestern (Oct. 9), Minnesota (Oct. 16)
Breakdown: Most of Purdue's problems in 2009 took place early in the season, as Danny Hope's team repeatedly found ways to lose winnable games. A strong start this season is not only critical but very doable. I strongly considered listing Purdue's four nonconference games as its key stretch, but the Boilers still need to prove themselves when Big Ten play begins. Regardless of what happens in the season opener at Notre Dame, Purdue will need to limit the mistakes that led to a 1-5 start last season. Even if Purdue falls to the Fighting Irish in South Bend, I see the Boilers entering this stretch at 2-1. Purdue has to take care of business against Toledo before facing very winnable games against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Boilers blew a big lead and couldn't hold onto the ball against Northwestern last season, and couldn't avoid the costly giveaways against the Gophers, either. A strong performance during this stretch gives Purdue a lot of confidence heading to Ohio State, while a poor showing will once against create an uphill climb for Hope's squad.
Prediction: If Purdue's offensive line holds up, it will put up plenty of points this fall. Quarterback Robert Marve has earned rave reviews so far in West Lafayette, and he'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal, including receivers Keith Smith, Cortez Smith and Justin Siller. Purdue should simply outscore Toledo to start the stretch 1-0. The Northwestern game will be a good one, as both teams are confident in their new quarterbacks but have some question marks (Purdue's defensive depth, Northwestern's run game). That game is a toss-up. Minnesota ranked last in the league in rushing in 2009, but the Gophers ran all over Purdue (207 rush yards, 4 TDs) in last year's game. If Purdue truly expects to improve, it must tighten up against the run and force Adam Weber to make plays through the air. I like Purdue in this matchup, but a lot could change before Oct. 16.
More key stretch