Harper said that the Wildcats want to be tested but would rather not face a top-10 type team right now in this stage of the rebuilding. He pointed to a potential Oklahoma/Arizona game as something the television networks might be interested in but admitted, "we're not quite at that level yet."
The challenge in scheduling is trying to get as many home games as possible, while still scheduling quality opponents. He pointed to the BYU game as an example. The Cats were originally slated to play BYU in 2007 and 2008, but when an opening this season became something that had to be filled, the Cats swapped out the 2008 home game for a home game this season.
BYU is a team that traditionally fields a good, competitive team, but is usually not a powerhouse. They are the type of team that a Pac-10 team should beat, but can't guarantee it.
The LSU game was another story. Stoops was critical of scheduling such a good team, especially in a rebuilding mode. He comes from the reclamation project at Kansas State where the program was built by securing early season wins against inferior programs.
Stoops noted that strength of schedule is such a small part of the process of evaluating teams. He feels that at the end of the year most media members and bowl selection committees don't care who a team played to get their wins, just that they get their wins. His frustration was less from having to play quality opponents in the early season, but more from the fact that the Pac-10 is the only conference to mandate their teams to play a full slate of conference games with the additional 12th game, rather than schedule another sure-fire win.
"There is a total imbalance in college football," Stoops said critically.
At this stage the team would rather schedule a sure win, a competitive, but beatable opponent and a team that would challenge them, but not necessarily dominate them. LSU was a team they inherited, as were Wisconsin and Purdue the past two seasons.
Stoops noted that the toughest part of scheduling was finding games that gave the team "the best chance to win once the conference starts."
In the three years of the Stoops era, the Wildcat have scheduled nine non-conference opponents. Five of those teams were ranked at the time of the game, three were from BCS conferences (although the 2004 Utah team played in a BCS bowl) and three were D-IAA teams.
Dick Tomey played 42 non-conference games (not including bowls). 18 were against BCS teams and 10 were against ranked teams. Tomey only played one game against a I-AA team, but two of the programs (Long Beach State and Pacific) no longer field teams.
So far over 50% of Stoops' non-conference opponents have been ranked, while less than 25% of Tomey's were ranked.
Of course, bad timing does factor into this. When LSU was added to the schedule, they were coming off of some of their worst seasons, while the Cats were coming off the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. By the time the games were played, LSU was back to being a national power and Arizona was struggling.
"It kind of flip-flopped," Harper laughed.
Utah is another example of bad luck. The Cats have played the Utes many times over the years, getting the best of the series, but could not have foreseen that the 2004 game would feature one of the best teams in school history and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. What was originally designed to be a game against a tough, mid-major team, instead became a top-5 team coming to Tucson in a rookie head coach's second game.
Harper said that the Cats like to accomplish something with the teams they schedule. He noted that the series against Toledo not only got the Cats a two-for-one with a solid MAC program, but also got many of the coaches an Ohio homecoming.
He said that with so many Texas recruits they'd love to get games against teams from the Lone Star State.
"We're not ready to schedule Texas or Texas A&M just yet," Harper noted.
Another challenge is getting enough games at home. Harper noted that teams offer to bring Arizona to their stadiums but usually don't want to make the return trip.
Over the next few years the Cats will face the likes of BYU, New Mexico, Toledo and Iowa. A lot of work still needs to be done, but the games in place serve a purpose. BYU is a team with a lot of regional appeal. The Cougars came to Tucson and with their big Arizona following, helped make the game a sellout. New Mexico may not have the drawing power of BYU, but it is a regional program that has had some recent success, while not being a powerhouse.
Iowa is a step-up in competition, but it is a game that has meaning for both Mike and Mark Stoops, both alums of the school. The thought is that by the time the Cats and Hawkeyes square off in 2009, the Cats will be at a level to compete with, and possibly beat a team like Iowa.
The challenge is scheduling is to find a balance between competition, wins and fan interest. So far Arizona has found that balance to be tough in the Stoops era.