- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- It's a good thing Sam Bradford has an ego that would fit in his back pocket. If the Oklahoma redshirt freshman quarterback wanted to make a case that he has been unfairly ignored, he's got plenty of evidence.
The 6-foot-4 signal-caller, who will lead No. 9 Oklahoma into the Alamodome on Saturday night against No. 1 Missouri in the Big 12 championship game (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) is unimpressed with the guy in the mirror. He might be the only one.
From the day three months ago when he stepped onto the field as a question mark and completed 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns against North Texas, to the day two weeks ago when his first-quarter injury caused the Sooners to fall apart at Texas Tech, Bradford has proved to be the one indispensable cog in the Sooners' machine.
Coach Bob Stoops said as much when asked why the Sooners won't play for a national championship this season.
"The biggest reason is that we played without our quarterback two games ago," Stoops said at his news conference this week. "I don't know that there's a whole bunch of teams out there that lose their quarterback the first play of the game that are going to rock along and play like they have all year."
Bradford's good health is a big reason Oklahoma (10-2) is favored to defeat Missouri (11-1), just as it did Oct. 13. In that game, Bradford, despite a heavy cold, completed 24 of 34 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and the Sooners won 41-31.
For the season, Bradford has completed 198 of 282 attempts for 2,670 yards, with 32 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His passing efficiency rating of 182.2 leads the nation, yet Bradford has received little attention for the Heisman Trophy and All-America teams. In fact, he made only the honorable mention All-Big 12 team. Chase Daniel of Missouri made the first team, and Todd Reesing of Kansas and Graham Harrell of Texas Tech shared the position on the second team.
If the Manning Award hadn't made Bradford one of its 10 finalists, it would be worth asking the question: If a quarterback stands tall in the forest and never falls, does he make a sound?
"Sam has just been phenomenal," Stoops said. "Listen, to me, Chase Daniel has just been fabulous. But here, look at Sam and compare.
"Chase has 33 [touchdown passes], and Sam has 32.
"He has nine interceptions. Sam has seven.
"We average 44 points with him at quarterback. They average 42.
"I agree with all [who say] Chase is a fabulous player. But when you look at Sam, he needs to be considered pretty darn good as well. He has been phenomenal for us, the direction of the offense, very few mistakes. He has just been what you want."
If the lack of recognition bothers Bradford, he never lets on. Part of it might be laid at the feet of his coach. Stoops rarely allowed his quarterback to be interviewed, other than after games. Bradford remained in the interview room after the Missouri game earlier this season for eight minutes.
Later that night, Bradford said he had just to begun to realize his life was no longer his own.
"It's definitely different," Bradford said of his new public persona. "There are times where you say, 'Dang, I'm trying to eat. I'm trying to be normal here.'
"But you know, at times, it's nice that people appreciate what you're doing. At times, they just want to tell you, 'Good job.' That's fine. But sometimes you go somewhere and you think, maybe I shouldn't have come here."
That's what happens when you're a redshirt freshman and you play like a senior. He did struggle in the 27-24 loss at Colorado, where he completed eight of 19 passes for 112 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. But in the 10 complete games he played -- excluding Texas Tech -- Bradford completed at least 70 percent of his passes in eight of them.
"That definitely comes from our coaches," Bradford said. "They do a great job giving us the looks they think we're going to get on Saturday, helping me talk through things. 'If they do this, this is where we're going to go. If they do this, this is what we're going to do.'
"Sometimes, you get out there and you say, 'Man, that's exactly what [the coaches] said is going to happen. And it happened.' When that happens, you gain a lot of trust in what they're telling you."
Bradford was referring to the offensive coaching staff. But his head coach marveled at how easily his young quarterback took over the whole team.
"His maturity, just his calmness, his inner confidence and talent," Stoops ticked off. "He's a talented guy as well. He's just been exceptional."
With that success, on this football-crazed campus, comes a loss of privacy. How many times in his year and a half on campus has Bradford grabbed lunch at the student union? He can't do that any longer.
"There was an elementary field trip," Bradford said. "They were pretty young. When one of them [approached me], all of them came."
He said it with a sense of wonder, perhaps because all his life, Bradford has fallen out of bed and excelled at sports. Completing a pass, sinking a jumper, holing a putt, combing his hair -- it's just what he has done since his childhood in Oklahoma City.
"Growing up, basketball is probably the one sport I played the most," Bradford said. "All summer, football, then back to basketball. I really enjoyed basketball."
He averaged a double-double as a senior at Putnam City North High.
"I used to play quite a bit of golf," Bradford said. "Now, really the only time you get to play is when you have time off. In May, we had three weeks off. I played quite a bit."
After Bradford wiped the cobwebs off his clubs and off his swing, he shot a 63.
"Football, that's pretty much it," Bradford said. "It's kind of expected. It becomes a job. If you want to be good, if you want to compete, it has to be 49 weeks a year, because everyone else is doing it."
There are people who excel at everything they pick up. It is effortless, and the rest of us would hate them for it if they weren't so nice to boot. Does he have any idea how unique his talents are? How many people would kill to excel in one sport the way he excels in every sport?
On the day after a game, Bradford wanted to answer that question as much as he wanted to go out and run gassers, but after a couple of hems and haws, he tried.
"I think with a lot of things you do just seem natural," Bradford said. "I really don't know. The older I got, the more competitive athletics you play, football and basketball and stuff, I started to realize that most people don't get to do that. I'm definitely fortunate for all the things God blessed me with."
And oh yes, he sails through his classwork, too. When the season began, Bradford could walk unaccosted through campus as an anonymous, if somewhat tall, finance major who enjoyed accounting classes and had an eye on law school.
"I always enjoyed solving problems," Bradford said.
He's done that, all right.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Bradford might not be mentioned in the Heisman hunt, but his stats on the field and his composure off of it make him an ideal candidate, writes Ivan Maisel.