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Toughest stretch: Northwestern Wildcats

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: Northwestern.

Toughest stretch: The month of October (at Iowa, at Michigan State, Indiana, at Ohio State).

Why: There might already be some strong hints about Northwestern’s viability as a Big Ten contender after the opening month of the season, but there will surely be a definitive answer by the time October comes to a close with a trip to Ohio State.

By the time the Wildcats take on the Buckeyes, they will have already hit the road to square off with reigning West Division champion Iowa, followed that up with a visit to Big Ten titleholder Michigan State and sandwiched in a test at home against an Indiana offense that has proven it can score points in bunches. Even with an off date worked in, that’s a heavy workload that could either turn into a nightmare by Halloween or set the table for a special stretch run to end the regular season.

The truth is Northwestern’s gauntlet could really be extended on either side of that four-game segment. September matchups set Duke, which is coming off four straight bowl appearances, followed by Nebraska as it looks for a bounce-back campaign won’t be easy, and Wisconsin is looming for the Wildcats to open November. Pat Fitzgerald clearly had his program back on track and playing with its trademark toughness last season, and he’s going to need the Wildcats to take it to another level if they’re going to make a run at the West crown with such a challenging run of games coming at them without many breathers.

There is that bye week built into that loaded October, which could help since Northwestern won’t have to hit the road for those battles with Iowa and Michigan State on consecutive weekends. And with so much talent returning on defense, a workhorse running back in Justin Jackson and expected improvement from the quarterback position as Clayton Thorson continues to develop, Fitzgerald’s club has the look of a legitimate threat heading into the fall.

By the time October is over, though, the debate about Northwestern’s ability to contend should be settled.