MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Michigan State's season hasn't played out the way the Spartans, or any of their opponents, expected.
The last reminder of this not-so-awesome autumn will occur Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, where already-bowl-eligible Minnesota will greet them.
Yes, one of the conference's two worst teams of the last two years reached six wins two weeks ago, while one of the Big Ten's best two squads over the last two seasons arrived at the final game on the schedule still unsure whether there'll be another one.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, for his part, sounded sure. He issued the victory guarantee that college football coaches so rarely utter in this hyper-competitive, heavily scrutinized environment.
"The glass is half full. It's not half empty," Dantonio said, in response to a reporter's question about moral support he's received from basketball coach Tom Izzo. "When we win Saturday — I'll say 'when' — we'll be a 6-6 football team. We're not climbing out of the cellar 2-10. I think everybody needs to understand that."
There is still a scenario in which the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) could land in a bowl game if they lose, since the NCAA has guidelines for considering five-win teams if there aren't enough with six to fill all 70 slots. Entering this week, there were 61 qualifiers and 16 candidates left. But a guessing game is one they'd rather not play. So they're behind their determined coach.
"It means a lot that he has that kind of confidence in us. We have that kind of confidence in ourselves," quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "We do realize it's the inches and the details that have put us in the position that we're in. We're in a playoff right now. It's win or go home. I think now is the week we need to find the inches, find the details, truly pay attention to them. I think everybody is buying in."
The Spartans had several key players from their last two teams that won 11 games apiece use up their eligibility, with Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham and Jerel Worthy among the notably departed. They began the season 13th in the Associated Press rankings and showed some grit with an opening win against then-No. 24 Boise State, and though the post-Cousins passing attack has sputtered often, their level of competitiveness hasn't slipped at all.
That finishing touch they've had the last two years has been missing, though, in too many of their performances. Five losses in Big Ten play, by a total of 13 points to Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern, are about all one needs to know about this team.
"We just kind of need to go back to work, go back to putting our nose to the grindstone, take that workmanlike attitude, obviously finishing this season out, hopefully getting the sixth win this Saturday, then taking it into the offseason, winter conditioning, spring ball, realizing how hard it is," Maxwell said. "Success doesn't come easy. It mainly comes to those who truly want it and truly understand the challenges that are ahead of them."
The Gophers (6-5, 2-5) have certainly enjoyed more satisfaction this year after winning a total of six games the last two seasons, but their lopsided losses to Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska have served as humbling signs that there's arduous work left to lift this program to the conference's upper level.
This will be the last game at TCF Bank Stadium for 15 seniors, including wide receiver MarQueis Gray, whose turn as the starting quarterback didn't go as well as he hoped, just like his entire career.
"I've done a lot of things here, been through a lot, overcame a lot and now it's almost my time to leave it alone," Gray said. "But I'm truly going to miss this place, my teammates, that stadium and all the fans."
Gray is one of the few players on this team who participated in the 2009 Insight Bowl, the last time the Gophers extended their season.
"Once the guys get down there, to wherever we're going, they're going to fall in love being treated the way they've been treated," Gray said. "Going out there and playing on a national stage, I feel like it's going to leave a taste in their mouth and a hunger for them to get back there as years go on."
Linebacker Mike Rallis expressed the same, holding out a long-shot hope of being picked for the Jan. 1 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 29 in Tempe, Ariz., which is the former Insight Bowl, or the Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 28 are the more-likely options.
"I'm excited for the program. I'm glad I got to be a part of the beginning of what hopefully turns this thing around and gets it going to where it's a consistently great program, but we've got to finish it if we want to do that," Rallis said.