Schedule easy to chalk up wins and look BCS-pretty? Or buckle down and play somebody to push your program forward.
That debate has taken a turn for the latter with BYU and Utah. And if you throw in Utah State and the first season by Gary Andersen, there is no fear of a fight from these guys.
As it should be.
It hasn't been that long since BYU scheduled some lower-division opponents such as Northern Iowa out of conference — even if it was a rush fill-in. Utah's done the same. It was during a time a good Hawaii team tiptoed into a BCS game against Georgia on a diet of petunias. Of course, Georgia made the Warriors pay.
Bronco Mendenhall says BYU has shifted its thinking with scheduling out of conference, and they'll beef it up in the future. That doesn't mean there won't be an opponent in non-conference scheduled as a win. Same for the Utes.
Times have changed.
Meaningful competition is everything.
While modern-day schedules are more fluid than in the past, the Cougars are weary about making announcements for far-in-the-future foes. A recent media guide showed a return game with Florida State and Washington and a regional series with WAC power Boise State.
Utah's Web site shows games at Iowa State and Notre Dame on the future calendar.
The Aggies not only play Utah and BYU, but Andersen's first year will be a gauntlet with a trip to College Station, Texas, to play Texas A&M. The Boise State game in conference could prove as difficult as the Big 12 opponent.
I think if you backed Whittingham, Andersen and Mendenhall up to a wall this month and talked about scheduling, none of the trio would sell a quick-fix win schedule. They'd say what doesn't kill you strengthens you.
And it should.
Players get a sense of what it takes to compete when they play stronger competition. A laugher that gets half the starters pulled after halftime proves little.
"I've really chosen to take a longer-term perspective than what I had or thought two years ago where you could consider scheduling playing the easiest teams non-conference to be undefeated," Mendenhall explained.
When the Cougars went the easy route, there was criticism, but none more than what Mendenhall, his staff and athletic director Tom Holmoe applied. "We need a balance," is how the athletic director put it.
Mendenhall said, "After reviewing that, now maybe gaining more maturity, my job is to build the program to be as strong as it can possibly be. We're not going to be able to do that and prepare our team for a national stage consistently without playing against teams who will help us get there."
It doesn't get any tougher than the opener against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, in a few weeks. The Cougars later in the month host Florida State in Provo.
Utah travels to Oregon and hosts Louisville this season with a pair of WAC games against USU and San Jose State providing the balance.
BYU's game with No. 3 Oklahoma is a prime example of how late-minute TV deals can shake up a schedule. Previously dates with Nevada got bounced around during several seasons. It's so unpredictable, looking down the line is iffy at best.
But the philosophy is tweaked in Provo to go after the bullies or big guys and risk sand in the face.
And that's a good thing. Utah found that to be the case in the Big House last season in a win over Michigan. In past years, BYU's wins over Miami, Penn State and Notre Dame did push the agenda.
It simply pays off in the long run, although the MWC could end up 0-5 the first week of the season.
When the Cougars had an opportunity to play the Sooners, after ESPN and the Dallas Cowboys called, Mendenhall didn't even blink.
"It might be at the expense of an undefeated season," Mendenhall said of a plan to play at least two BCS programs each year. In his early head coaching career, the series with UCLA, Arizona and Boston College pushed his team. He values that.
"Like the lessons we've learned the two previous seasons (before 2008) in helping us win two championships, we need to learn some more about our program, and who better to learn from. It's not the Tulsas any more, but the USCs and Texases. It won't be all four non-conference games, but probably two, and that will eventually help us.
"I'm not so caught up any more in year-by-year; my vision for the program is playing those teams who can be a catalyst for improvement."79 comments on this story
It is also a benefit to Utah and BYU that TCU is pushing both. The MWC has three ranked teams in the preseason coaches' poll?
Early polling is meaningless, unless you read into it that it represents political respect, some cachet, a little credit on deposit with coaches and the media around the country.
In the end, that's what this is all about, turning heads, starting with your own self-respect.