Bradford thrives on the big stage

NORMAN, Okla. -- The right arm that hoisted the Heisman and Big 12 championship trophies last season is fine.

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford insists that his health isn't a concern. He made a believer out of his head coach even before he passed for 389 yards in last week's win over Baylor, his first game after missing a month due to a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder.

Coach Bob Stoops flashed a big grin as he recalled a 55-yard spiral by Bradford while warming up that afternoon.

"It looked as pretty as it usually does," Stoops said.

You can't say the same thing about the No. 20 Sooners as they prepare for their annual trip to the Cotton Bowl to meet their archrivals. For only the second time in Stoops' 11 seasons, Oklahoma has more than one loss entering its Big 12 South showdown with Texas.

While there were a lot of factors, it's easy to link the Sooners' losses to BYU and Miami to Bradford's injury. It's certainly difficult to find anyone wearing crimson and cream who isn't confident that Oklahoma would have a 5-0 record, just like Texas, had Bradford been healthy.

"No slight on [backup Landry Jones], but the guy last year was the best player in college football," Stoops said. "How could he not make a difference? Sure he does. Absolutely he does."

But the damage is done. The Sooners almost certainly will not be national title contenders this season. Bradford's chances to become only the second repeat Heisman winner took a huge hit, although he certainly doesn't seem concerned about that.

Bradford prefers to look at the bright side. The Sooners still have as good a chance as anybody to win their fourth consecutive Big 12 title -- still a sore subject for folks in Austin. And he gets to compete against the Longhorns, and his good buddy Colt McCoy, in one of the nation's most meaningful rivalries.

"You love these opportunities," Bradford said. "That's what you come to this university for. You come here to play in big games on a national stage. To have another opportunity to go out there and do that this Saturday, it's just exciting."

Bradford has been spectacular in his two previous games against the Longhorns.

There were doubts about him entering the Red River Rivalry as a redshirt freshman. He had a poor performance the previous week in a stunning loss to Colorado. He responded by completing 21 of 32 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, removing any questions about whether he was for real.

The Sooners came out on the short end of a shootout last season, but Bradford put on a show. He completed 28 of 39 passes for 387 yards and five touchdowns in the 45-35 loss.

"The really good ones like the big games," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "Cream to the top."

Bradford, who said last week that he wanted to have a game under his belt before facing Texas, wasn't particularly pleased with the Sooners' performance in the 33-7 win over Baylor. Oklahoma racked up 592 yards, a total that ought to result in more points, but Oklahoma sputtered in the red zone.

But Bradford said his arm felt good after firing 49 passes and hasn't given him any problems since. He thinks he's still chipping off some of the mental rust.

"It was important for me to get back out there. But I think for the guys, to get used to me being back out there was important," Bradford said. "We saw some things on film that we can correct and hopefully we will correct this week."

Wilson considers Bradford's decision-making to be one of his best qualities, right up there with his precise accuracy. His teammates mention his poise, which is especially important in an atmosphere like the Sooners will be part of Saturday.

"He calms everybody down, all the young cats and even the older cats," left tackle Trent Williams said. "With Sam, he's so laid-back. When everyone is getting frantic, Sam is never frantic. He's always settling us down and making the right reads.

"We know we can trust Sam. That brings a lot of confidence."

Tim MacMahon covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.