Critical games for 2013: Key stretches for the Big Ten

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Which three- and four-game stretches will determine the Big Ten title?

Which three- and four-game stretches will determine the Big Ten title?

Every now and then, the college football schedule is a kingmaker. Or it turns conference title hopefuls into paupers.

In our series examining critical stretches across the country, we take a look at the Big Ten. Each team will have its string of make-or-break games for its season.

For Ohio State, it’s a pair of games in November. For Michigan, it’s the entire month. No one said this was fair.

*presented in Athlon’s Big Ten projected order of finish

LEADERS DIVISION

Ohio State

Nov. 23 Indiana
Nov. 30 at Michigan

It’s a telling note about the Ohio State schedule that the Buckeyes won’t have a truly grueling stretch of three consecutive tough games and one of the toughest stretches for Ohio State involves Indiana. Michigan is the most important game on the schedule, followed by a potential Big Ten title game. Here’s why Indiana might be important: It could be a look-ahead game for a team resting on its laurels. And the Hoosiers may be one of the few teams before Michigan that can test a vulnerable Ohio State secondary: Indiana led the Big Ten in pass plays of 20 yards or longer with 47.

Related: Ohio State game-by-game picks

Wisconsin
Sept. 14 at Arizona State
Sept. 21 Purdue
Sept. 28 Ohio State
Oct. 12 Northwestern

Gary Andersen will have UMass and Tennessee Tech to warm his team up for an important stretch early in the year. The Badgers visit a Pac-12 school for the second consecutive season, and this one is against Athlon’s pick to win the South Division. With two tough road trips, Andersen probably would prefer to have his QB situation settled by then. Wisconsin’s secondary also is a major concern, especially against a Sun Devils team that led the Pac-12 in yards per pass attempt. Ohio State and Northwestern return Heisman-contending quarterbacks.

Related: Wisconsin game-by-game picks

Penn State
Nov. 9 at Minnesota
Nov. 16 Purdue
Nov. 23 Nebraska
Nov. 30 at Wisconsin

Penn State faces Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games earlier in the season, albeit with an off week in between. We picked this late stretch because of the upset potential against a quick Minnesota defense on the road and two games against Big Ten contenders in the final two weeks. By this point of the season freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg should be settled in, but attrition also could be taking effect.

Related: Penn State game-by-game picks

Indiana
Sept. 21 Missouri
Oct. 5 Penn State
Oct. 12 at Michigan State

Optimism is high for the Hoosiers, but their bowl hopes depend on a defense that was a mess last season. During this stretch they’ll face two teams that ranked in the 90s in total offense (Mizzou and Michigan State) and a rebuilding group at home (Penn State).

Purdue
Sept. 14 Notre Dame
Sept. 21 at Wisconsin
Sept. 28 Northern Illinois
Oct. 12 Nebraska

The Boilermakers will look to salvage anything in a span of three consecutive games against teams that made BCS games last season, plus Nebraska.

Illinois
Aug. 31 Southern Illinois
Sept. 7 Cincinnati
Sept. 14 Washington (Chicago)
Sept. 29 Miami (Ohio)

Anything worse than 2-2 in this stretch could put Tim Beckman on the hot seat awfully early in his first season.

LEGENDS DIVISION

Michigan
Nov. 2 at Michigan State
Nov. 9 Nebraska
Nov. 16 at Northwestern
Nov. 23 at Iowa
Nov. 30 Ohio State

November will be the make-or-break month for Michigan with three road games and two rivalry games, all before a potential Big Ten title game. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will have his work cut out for him planning for this gauntlet. Michigan State isn’t a great offensive team, but the Spartans will try to shorten the game with physical play, then it’s Nebraska and its multifaceted run game, followed by Northwestern’s dynamic spread attack, another grinding team in Iowa and finally a potential Heisman contender in Braxton Miller.

Related: Michigan game-by-game picks

Nebraska
Nov. 2 Northwestern
Nov. 9 at Michigan
Nov. 16 Michigan State
Nov. 23 at Penn State

In the first six games, Nebraska plays only one bowl team from last season (UCLA). The November stretch will determine if the Cornhuskers return to the Big Ten championship game. The Huskers visit Ann Arbor and Happy Valley while Northwestern has been a thorn in the side of Bo Pelini since he arrived in the Big Ten. Northwestern won the last meeting in Lincoln 28-25.

Related: Nebraska game-by-game picks

Northwestern
Oct. 5 Ohio State
Oct. 12 at Wisconsin
Oct. 19 Minnesota
Oct. 26 at Iowa
Nov. 2 at Nebraska
Nov. 16 Michigan

Northwestern will need to take care of business against Minnesota and Iowa otherwise this stretch could get out of hand. This stretch includes a BCS team, an undefeated team and two New Year’s Day bowl team. The Wildcats have been good for an upset or two in recent seasons, but they also coughed up fourth quarter leads last year against Nebraska and Michigan.

Related: Northwestern game-by-game picks

Michigan State
Oct. 5 at Iowa
Oct. 12 Indiana
Oct. 19 Purdue
Oct. 26 Illinois

Michigan State gets a good draw in the schedule by avoiding Ohio State, Wisconsin an Penn State. Better take advantage in October before facing Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Related: Michigan State game-by-game picks

Minnesota
Nov. 2 at Indiana
Nov. 9 Penn State
Nov. 23 Wisconsin
Nov. 30 at Michigan State

Minnesota went 1-3 in the final four games of the regular season. This stretch is just as difficult with no guaranteed win (Minnesota beat Illinois during that four-game stretch last season).

Iowa
Aug. 31 Northern Illinois
Sept. 7 Missouri State
Sept. 15 at Iowa State
Sept. 21 Western Michigan

It took Northern Illinois playing in the Orange Bowl to remind people Iowa defeated the Huskies last season. NIU will be favored this year. Kirk Ferentz needs a good showing early to avoid the hot seat watch.

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