By Stewart Mandel
September 06, 2009

Last January, four standout Oklahoma Sooners -- quarterback Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham, left tackle Trent Williams and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy -- announced they were putting off the NFL to return for another shot at a national championship.

On Saturday night against BYU, two of those players, Heisman-winner Bradford and preseason All-American Greshman, stood on the sideline in T-shirts (with Bradford's arm in a sling, no less) watching helplessly as kicker Tress Way's desperation 54-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left, Oklahoma's championship hopes likely sailing away with it.

It's astonishing to think that after months of preseason buildup in which the Sooners were near-universally regarded as a top-three team and Bradford sat at or near the top of every last Heisman list, both goals have likely been vanquished after just one game. Improbably, BYU now has the more realistic shot at Pasadena, Max Hall the more feasible ticket to New York.

Yes, it's true that in recent years an early-season loss has been less than fatal for national title aspirants. Just last season, Oklahoma reached the BCS title game and Bradford took home the bronzed trophy despite enduring a loss to rival Texas much later than this one. But even before Bradford suffered his unfortunate shoulder injury late in Saturday's first half, it was clear these were not the same touchdown-happy Sooners of 2008.

Oklahoma's biggest question mark of the offseason -- an inexperienced offensive line that had to replace four decorated starters -- proved wholly unanswered. The Sooners committed three false-start penalties on their opening series alone and six offensive penalties in the first half. Bradford, who enjoyed the benefit of going virtually untouched most games the past two years, was knocked down three times on the Sooners' last possession of the half, the last one causing his injury.

It's a credit to Oklahoma's defense, which forced four BYU turnovers, that the Sooners managed to keep the Cougars at bay for nearly 57 minutes. But with 3:03 left, BYU receiver McKay Jacobsen snuck unnoticed into the back of the end zone and hauled in the go-ahead touchdown from ultra-resilient quarterback Hall (26-of-38, 328 yards, two TDs, two INTs). Even with the benefit of starting at his own 40-yard line thanks to a Cougars kickoff out-of-bounds, Oklahoma backup QB Landry Jones could only drive the Sooners 23 yards before Way's long-shot kick.

The dagger: Yet another false-start penalty on third and 9 with 1:34 left.

BYU's upset was reminiscent of another opening-day stunner four years ago, when fellow Mountain West stalwart TCU went to Norman and knocked off the Sooners. That 2005 Oklahoma squad was also coming off a national-title game loss, and those Sooners were also breaking in a new O-line. The big difference: That team did not have the luxury of returning its Heisman-winning QB, Jason White -- but now we don't know when this team will get Bradford back.

Bob Stoops has done a masterful job over the years of reinventing his team from year to year, even in the face of crisis. Whether Bradford returns next week or eight weeks from now, the Sooners will find a way to win plenty of games. McCoy and the defense will make certain of that.

But can they beat Texas? Or Oklahoma State? Only if that offensive line gets better in a hurry.

Speaking of parallels, 25 years ago this weekend BYU stunned another third-ranked team, Pittsburgh, to begin its run to an undefeated season and national championship. In a recent feature about that team, I posed the question of whether a non-BCS team could ever achieve that goal again.

Hall, whose team also faces Florida State at home in two weeks, said at the time: "If you play big teams like an Oklahoma, or a Florida or a Texas -- teams that are in contention every year -- and then you go undefeated, I think you absolutely should get to play in [the title game]."

The Cougars are a long way from going undefeated, but they may have just cleared their most difficult hurdle.

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