Key stretch: Michigan

The first official day of summer is approaching. That means football can't be far behind. As we continue to count down toward the season, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

The Michigan Wolverines are on the board today.

Key stretch: Penn State (Oct. 11), at Michigan State (Oct. 25), Indiana (Nov. 1), at Northwestern (Nov. 8)

Breakdown: If Michigan can find a way to win at Notre Dame in Week 2, it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine the Wolverines sitting at 6-0 midway through the season. Their only other road game before Oct. 25 is at Rutgers. Of course, Brady Hoke's team will have to play with a lot more consistency than it showed last year for that to become even remotely possible and its chances in the East Division race probably will be decided in the first two games of this key stretch. Penn State beat Michigan in a four-overtime thriller in State College last year and enters the season with many of the same questions (offensive line, inexperienced receivers) as the Wolverines. The big showdown, of course, is the trip to East Lansing to take on a Spartans team that has won the Paul Bunyan Trophy in five of the past six years. The game against Indiana doesn't loom quite as large, though the Hoosiers showed last year that they can pile up points and yards in Ann Arbor (while giving up even more). The stretch concludes with a road game at Northwestern, a team that has taken Michigan to the absolute brink the past two seasons.

Prediction: The schedule sets up pretty well for Michigan, which gets a week off between the Penn State game and the crucial matchup with Michigan State. The Wolverines could be favored in three of these games, and a 3-1 record or better would keep them in the thick of the East Division chase. We have to favor the Spartans both because of the recent history and the home-field advantage. The games against the Nittany Lions and Wildcats look like toss-ups, while Indiana has upset potential. Given the up-and-down nature of this program the past couple of seasons, we'll go the safe route and predict a 2-2 mark for Michigan in this stretch. Anything better probably signals a bounce-back year for Hoke's crew.