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Look out, Big 12: Why nobody wants to play Oklahoma right now

DALLAS -- All offseason long, Oklahoma looked like the safest bet in the Big 12, the most complete team with the fewest flaws. Two brutally hard nonconference games proved the Sooners were still very much a work in progress.

Today, they seem to be right back where they started -- as the Big 12 team nobody wants to play right now. No disrespect to undefeated Baylor or West Virginia, but the Sooners are finally starting to play like the team to beat in this wide-open conference.

It’s easy to be won over by Oklahoma’s flashy play on offense during the 52-46 win at TCU and 45-40 win over Texas. Baker Mayfield accounted for 739 total yards in those games, the Samaje Perine-Joe Mixon duo got 550 and breakout receiver Dede Westbrook produced 394.

Those guys are not to be trifled with in a shootout, and they’re bound to encounter a few more during this conference slate. But the truth is, the resilient play of Oklahoma’s beat-up defense against Texas was almost more admirable.

By the end of Saturday afternoon, Oklahoma was playing without five of its opening day starters on defense. Charles Walker, Matt Dimon, Will Johnson and Parrish Cobb were already out, and concussions ended starting linebacker Tay Evans' career last week. But then corner Michiah Quick went down with an MCL injury that could sideline him six weeks. And safety Ahmad Thomas had to exit against Texas after a hit to the head.

For much of that Red River game, Bob Stoops had to roll with true freshmen Jordan Parker and Chanse Sylvie plus sophomore Will Sunderland in the secondary and trust they could come through on a pressure-packed day.

Sunderland’s moment came late in the third quarter, deep in OU territory after Joe Mixon's muffed punt. Texas’ Shane Buechele forced a third-down pass to Armanti Foreman near the sideline. Sunderland dove in front of Foreman and fought for control of the ball.

“I was just thinking, 'It’s mine,' and I’m not letting go of it and just concentrating on hanging on as tight as I could,” Sunderland said.

He won that battle, and the Sooners’ offensive stars thanked him for the pick by driving 93 yards in 13 plays to go up 42-27.

Playing without seven defenders who’ve combined for 62 career starts is no small feat. Veterans end up playing too many snaps. Newcomers make mistakes. But together, they rose to the occasion against Texas.

“A lot of guys went down here today,” Stoops said afterward, “but I was really pleased and proud of the young guys that all went in and fought and scrapped and played, and they really played well. They affected the game in a positive way.”

Nobody would accuse the Sooners of playing terrific defense thus far, not like they did during their Big 12 title run in 2015. Against TCU and again vs. Texas, they let their foe score enough late to get back in the game. That’s a problem.

But now the schedule gets a bit more friendly, and three of the conference’s best -- Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State -- have to travel to Norman this year. Are the Sooners still a work in progress? Absolutely. The way this league is playing out, OU going 8-4 might be the safe, conservative bet at the moment.

Then again, 8-4 might be enough to win the Big 12 this season. For now, the win over Texas, OU linebacker Emmanuel Beal says, does a lot for this team at this time.

“Brings a lot of confidence and silences a lot of critics,” Beal said. “Brings confidence to our coaches, our players, and our younger players who played today. They can say, ‘We beat Texas, why can’t we do that to everyone else?’”