Bowl eligibility is on the line Saturday as the Baylor Bears travel to Ames to face the Iowa State Cyclones in a battle of five-win Big 12 teams. Baylor took a big step toward the postseason last week by upsetting Oklahoma State 35-31 last week. With the victory, the Bears improved to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play, having already more than doubled their win total from head coach Matt Rhule’s first season in 2017.
Iowa State improved its record to 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big 12 with a 27-3 win over Kansas last week, and the Cyclones moved up slightly to No. 22 in the College Football Playoff rankings as well. Matt Campbell’s team has now won four in a row, which has also kept it alive in the race to claim a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Baylor at Iowa State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Iowa State -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Both Baylor and Iowa State have started multiple quarterbacks this season because of injury. The Bears began the season with Charlie Brewer as the starter, and the sophomore currently ranks No. 6 in the Big 12 in passing (208.4 yards per game). However, Brewer split time with senior transfer Jalen McClendon early this year before securing the top spot on the depth chart, and McClendon got the start against Oklahoma State because Brewer had gone under the concussion protocol the week before. Brewer was inserted into the game in the fourth quarter with the Bears down by 10 points and threw two touchdown passes to lead a dramatic come-from-behind win. The sophomore should start Saturday.
Kyle Kempt and Zeb Noland both spent time this season as the top QB option for Iowa State, but freshman Brock Purdy has taken the reins of the position over the last month. In four starts, Purdy has completed 66.3 percent of his passes for 1,085 yards and 12 TDs with two interceptions while averaging a very impressive 11.1 yards per pass attempt — a figure that would rank No. 3 nationally behind only Heisman Trophy candidates Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa if Purdy had played enough to qualify for the official FBS leaderboard.
2. Pro prospects
It’s too early to gauge how professional scouts will feel about Brewer and Purdy when they become eligible for the NFL draft in the years to come, but there are several pro prospects on both rosters as we look ahead to 2019.
Iowa State running back David Montgomery is one of the best bets to become an early-round pick next season should he declare for the draft. The 5-foot-11, 216-pound junior ranks second in the Big 12 and in the top 25 nationally in rushing (101.71 yards per game) this season and has gained more than 100 rushing yards in four of his last five games. As one of the toughest running backs to tackle in college football, Montgomery has amassed 2,421 career rushing yards and has 19 rushing touchdowns, including six this season. Also, though he has been less of a factor in the passing game in 2018, Montgomery has proven himself to be a capable receiver out of the backfield in years past: He caught 36 passes for 296 yards a year ago.
Speaking of receivers, Iowa State wideout Hakeem Butler has been one of the best in the Big 12, and at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he has ideal size for the NFL. Butler leads nation in yards per reception (23.97) and ranks No. 11 nationally in receiving yards per game (98.9). As for Baylor, two productive Bears receivers could play their way into scouts’ consideration. Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims, both big targets themselves at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, both rank in the top 10 in the Big 12 in receiving.
3. Third-down conversions
An area of great disparity in this matchup is the success rate for each offense on third downs. Baylor ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 and No. 18 in the country in third down success rate (46.15 percent). Much of that success can be attributed to a balanced offensive attack that features a pair of productive running backs in JaMycal Hasty and John Lovett as well as the receiver duo of Hurd and Mims. However, Iowa State has struggled at times to move the sticks. The Cyclones have been successful on just 35.78 percent of third down opportunities, which is the worst rate in the conference and ranks 100th nationally despite one of the top playmaking duos in Montgomery and Butler.
The Iowa State defense — the best in the Big 12, statistically speaking, in term of both total defense (324.4 yards allowed per game) and yards allowed per play (4.74) — has also struggled to stop teams on third down. Opponents have succeeded on 40.83 percent of the time on third down this year, which ranks No. 7 in the conference and 0.15 percent ahead of No. 8 Baylor.
Though Iowa State and Baylor both enter Saturday’s showdown with five wins, the Cyclones are more than a two-touchdown favorite to get win no. 6. Iowa State has been very impressive since turning to Purdy at quarterback, and the freshman signal caller has two of the top pro prospects in the conference available as offensive playmakers. Though the talented trio hasn’t excelled on third down conversions, the Clones have made enough plays to stay in the Big 12 title race. And with the best defense in the conference, Iowa State looks stronger by the week.
Prediction: Iowa State 31, Baylor 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.