Key stretch: Penn State

We continue our series examining a stretch of the schedule that could make or break the season for a Big Ten team.

Come on down, Penn State Nittany Lions.

Key stretch: Illinois (Oct. 29), Nebraska (Nov. 12), at Ohio State (Nov. 19), at Wisconsin (Nov. 26).

Breakdown: The Nittany Lions have a marquee early nonconference game against Alabama in Week 2, but when it comes to their Big Ten fate, it's all about the end of the season. Penn State has a chance to get off to a good start in league play with winnable road games at Indiana and Northwestern and home dates with Iowa and Purdue. Joe Paterno will have to hope that some of his younger players like Silas Redd, Gerald Hodges and Rob Bolden are all grown up for the final four games of the season, however. Illinois could be in Leaders Division contention by the time it gets to Happy Valley thanks to a favorable early schedule. Then the final three games comprise what looks like the most difficult closing run for any Big Ten team, as the Lions must play host to Nebraska before finishing on the road in Columbus and Madison. Staying healthy for that stretch drive will be critical.

Prediction: In a best-case scenario, Penn State would win its first five Big Ten games and then merely need to escape those final three games at 2-1 or even 1-2 to still have a chance at claiming the Leaders title. I like the home matchup with Illinois, and Nebraska will have to deal with a likely raucous atmosphere at Beaver Stadium. Playing Ohio State so late in the year is a disadvantage, since the Buckeyes will have all their suspended players back and should have their quarterback situation ironed out well before the Nittany Lions come to town. Going to Camp Randall with potentially major division title ramifications won't be easy, either. If Penn State gets through this stretch at no worse than 2-2, it has to be considered a victory. A 1-3 record seems very possible, however.

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