It’s been a rough 2019 football season in East Lansing.

Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) entered the new year with high expectations despite being in one of the tougher divisions in the nation because the belief of many prognosticators was that head coach Mark Dantonio would have the offense fixed enough to complement what was expected to be another stout defense.

But with one game remaining in the regular season, MSU is in need of another win just to advance to the postseason.

The Spartans host Maryland on Saturday and need a sixth victory to become bowl eligible, a position they haven’t been in since 2012 when a 266-yard rushing effort by Le’Veon Bell helped Sparty beat Minnesota in its final regular-season game on Senior Day to become bowl eligible.

MSU hopes for a similar standout effort as it looks to end the campaign on a two-game win streak after a 27-0 shutout win at Rutgers last Saturday.

“I don’t care where you’re at in the scheme of things within your schedule,” Dantonio said. “When you win your sixth game, you sort of meet the minimum in terms of accomplishment. You’re bowl eligible. You have a chance for a winning season and things of that nature. We’ll build on that and we’ll deal with that as we move forward.

“The only thing we can sort of change is the future. While we are disappointed in where we are at, we still have an opportunity to play ourselves forward and that’s what we’ll do.”

Certainly, it has been a trying season for Dantonio, who became Michigan State’s all-time winningest coach with a victory over Northwestern on September 21. He has missed out on a bowl game only once since becoming the team’s head coach before the 2007 season, so earning a postseason invite should be the minimum standard. While Dantonio owns school records for most bowl appearances (11) and bowl victories (five), he is also the only active Big Ten coach to win multiple league championships (2010, 2013, 2015), claim a Rose Bowl victory (2014) and coach in the College Football Playoff (2015). So expectations should be much more lofty than winning six games.

To be fair, the Spartans played a very difficult schedule. According to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, Michigan State has played the 11th-toughest schedule in the nation, with four opponents currently in the AP Top 25 (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin) and eight foes owning a winning record (the aforementioned four teams plus Western Michigan, Arizona State, Indiana and Illinois).

But what is most concerning is the Spartans looked completely overmatched against the Big Ten’s best, and it was underscored in the team’s 44-10 blowout loss to Michigan two weeks ago. That setback came just a week after it blew a 31-10 lead against Illinois in the fourth quarter. Down seasons happen, but in a league that has seen an influx of younger coaches and improved programs, getting back to the top will be even more difficult.

Dantonio was able to bring MSU back to respectability after it lost to Alabama 38-0 in a College Football Playoff semifinal then followed that up with a 3-9 campaign in 2016. The Spartans won 10 games the next year, but then they dipped back to 7 victories in 2018.

It is a real question as to whether Dantonio can ever get the Spartans back to their peak of 2015 when they last won the Big Ten, finishing the season at 12-2, and advanced to the CFP. That campaign marked the third straight year in which Dantonio had led the Spartans to at least 11 wins and the fifth time in six years.

Forward to this season when we are talking about merely making a bowl game with a win on Thanksgiving weekend, and things have altered greatly in East Lansing.

Dantonio has already received a dreaded vote of confidence from an athletic director who did not hire him, so we’ll see how that plays out and if more staff re-tooling will be done. But change of some sort is needed at MSU in the offseason. First thing’s first, though: earning a berth to the postseason.

“I’ve said this many times: Our guys have stayed the course in terms of their attitude and their chemistry and enthusiasm and energy,” Dantonio said. “They truly have, and it’s been impressive. Very, very impressive. We’ve gotten good senior leadership from our guys.

“Things don’t always go the way that you plan them, but at the same time they have responded accordingly. I thought this past weekend, a little bit of a weight was lifted from their shoulders just getting the win.”

Win or lose this weekend, a lot of pressure will be on the Michigan State administration and Dantonio — if he is still leading the program — as they look to get MSU back to the top of the Big Ten East standings.