Arizona Football

Arizona’s scheduling philosophy: Playing non-Power 5 teams on road not as risky as going against big boys

Arizona playing a non-conference game on the road in football makes sense if the opponent is from the WAC or other conference in this area, because of the regional rivalries and appeal from years past.

The Wildcats scheduled such games after leaving the WAC in 1978 for what was then the Pac-10, but the routine really did not start until “Giant Killer” coach Larry Smith was gone after the 1986 season.

Tony Mason’s 1979 team lost at San Diego State 42-10. The next road game against a non-Power 5 conference opponent did not occur until 11 years later when Arizona won at New Mexico 25-10 in Dick Tomey’s fourth season.

Arizona coach Larry Smith is carried off the field by the Wildcats following what he called was their most prestigious win in the program’s history (YouTube video capture)

During Smith’s tenure from 1980 to 1986, Arizona played non-conference road games against Iowa, Notre Dame, LSU and Colorado (which was in the Big Eight at the time). The Wildcats’ record in those games? They went 3-1 with the lone loss a 27-26 thriller at LSU in 1984.

During his tenure from 1987 to 2000, Tomey went 5-0 on the road against opponents who were not part of the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC at the time. He beat New Mexico, Hawai’i, TCU (part of the Mountain West then), Utah (also Mountain West then) and San Diego State on the road.

Tomey lost at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Ohio State (twice), Miami, Illinois and Penn State. He beat Georgia Tech and Illinois on the road.

The 2-7 record is not sterling but nine road games against quality opponents in 14 years as a head coach is admirable.

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John Mackovic took on road games scheduled by Tomey against Wisconsin and Purdue in his failed tenure from 2001 and 2003 and lost big in those. His first game in 2001 was a win at San Diego State.

Mike Stoops started the trend becoming gun shy of road games against Power 5 teams after LSU annihilated the Wildcats 45-3 in Baton Rouge in 2006. His teams played at Iowa and Oklahoma State after that, losing both games, before his firing in 2011.

Stoops went 1-3 on the road against Utah (in the Mountain West at the time), BYU, New Mexico and Toledo. So much for shying away from the big boys to win non-conference games.

Rich Rodriguez has not coached against a Power 5 team on the road thanks to Stoops’ schedule making before his departure and Rodriguez adhering to the cautious philosophy.

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Rodriguez is 3-0 on the road in non-conference games against the likes of UNLV, UTSA and Nevada.

UTEP will likely become the fourth consecutive outmatched non-conference opponent on the road tonight.

Arizona plays at Houston next season, but the Cougars are a non-Power 5 team playing in the American Athletic Conference.

The Wildcats are slated to play a Power 5 opponent on the road for the first time in nine years when they travel to Lubbock, Texas, in 2020 to play Texas Tech.

Just how valuable was the late Larry Smith to Arizona’s football program? Read this story again if you did not pick up on it the first time.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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