By Stewart Mandel
November 06, 2004

They'd roared and swayed nearly non-stop for four hours, but as Ty Branyon's final Hail Mary heave sailed toward the end zone, the 81,125 spectators at Kyle Field couldn't have been more quiet.

And they weren't the only ones on pins and needles.

In Auburn, Ala., Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., countless television viewers most likely watched with dismay as the football fell back toward the earth, bounced around a pack of Oklahoma defenders, then landed, finally, just out of the reach of Texas A&M receiver Chad Schroeder, preserving the Sooners' second straight last-second escape.

As the jubilant Oklahoma players ran to the locker room, their cheerleaders posed for a victory photograph holding oranges -- and why not? With their only remaining games coming against punchless Nebraska, Baylor and a yet-to-be determined, barely .500 North-division opponent, the Sooners' path to the Orange Bowl is about as clear as it gets.

Yet in the wake of their 42-35 win over Texas A&M -- coming on the heels of a 38-35 nailbiter the week before against Oklahoma State -- one question figures to fill the chat rooms and the air waves this week in Auburn, Madison and everywhere in between: Do the Sooners really deserve it?

Should a team that's struggling to survive in the less-than-overwhelming Big 12 be dropped behind a pair of more dominant, undefeated teams from the SEC and Big Ten? Or should they simply be commended for winning consecutive road games against ranked opponents, no matter what the margin, not to mention shutting out sixth-ranked Texas?

"I bet Miami would have been happy just to beat North Carolina any way they could have," said Oklahoma tackle Jammal Brown. "We won -- that's all it comes down to."

Sooners head coach Bob Stoops seemed to sense the scrutiny was coming as soon as he walked into his postgame news conference. He knows that at this point in the game, with just weeks remaining until the final BCS standings and four major-conference teams still undefeated, his team is being judged not just on whether it wins but how.

"We're one of those teams that gets criticized even when we win," Stoops said. "In the end, though, I'm smart enough to recognize all that we overcame down here in this atmosphere and still came away with a victory."

To be precise, here's what Oklahoma had to overcome Saturday against an A&M team that looked nothing like the squad that lost to Baylor the previous weekend: a deafening crowd; three different 14-point deficits; surrendering both a fake punt and fake field goal for touchdowns; and an A&M defense that held running back Adrian Peterson to his second-lowest rushing output of the season.

So how did the Sooners do it? By clamping down on defense and holding the Aggies without an offensive touchdown for the final 44 minutes; by holding their offense to 169 yards in the second half, down from 320 in the first half; and, most notably, by Jason White delivering yet another epic performance, completing 19 of 35 passes for 292 yards and five touchdowns, three of them in the second half.

Perhaps most telling of the Sooners' poise, they committed not a single turnover. The Aggies had three, two of them creating a short field for Oklahoma to score touchdowns.

"It shows a lot of courage by our offense," said White. "With a big crowd in a big game, you'll be behind sometimes. The offense kind of sputtered a little in the second half, but we came through when it counted."

Now, for the caveat. The Sooners won't say this, but we can: Texas A&M's defense isn't very good. Come to think of it, does anyone in the Big 12 play defense anymore? It's entirely possible that OU will go the entire regular season without facing a legitimate, top-25 defense, which makes it tough to truly gauge their seemingly unstoppable offense. Remember last year, when we were led to believe through 12 games that the Sooners were possibly one of the greatest teams ever assembled? Remember what happened when they finally ran into two bona fide defenses in Kansas State and LSU?

The Sooners will answer, of course, that their offense is more complete than last year, which it is. While Peterson wasn't his usual, dominant self on Saturday (29 carries, 101 yards), his mere presence prevented the Aggies from bringing the house against White, who was sacked just once.

But the real questions regard OU's defense, which hasn't played four complete quarters since the Oct. 9 Red River Shootout. After watching both Oklahoma State and A&M slice and dice the Sooners, one can't help but be skeptical of their chances against a more balanced, elite offense -- like, say, Auburn's.

See why a few folks on The Plains might be getting kind of antsy?

All of this, of course, is a moot issue unless more than two teams finish undefeated. And of the four remaining (besides Utah and Boise State), the two teams currently ranked No. 1 and 2, USC and Oklahoma, have a much easier remaining road then the two trying to supplant them (Auburn and Wisconsin).

If, however, Auburn were to finish its season by beating Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee; and Wisconsin were to go on the road and dominate Michigan State and Iowa, it would seem the pollsters would have a legitimate quandary. Especially since the Sooners, for all intents and purposes, will have a month-long bye between now and Dec. 4.

"I'm not sensitive. That's what you guys do," Stoops said to any potential critics among his postgame audience. "There are some areas where we need to play better, you don't have to tell us. But I'm smart enough to see the positive side, that as badly as we played in the first half, we were still close enough to come out with the win."

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