Winning season at stake as Vanderbilt and Baylor meet in Houston
This will be Baylor's second time playing in the Texas Bowl (lost to Illinois 38-14 in 2010) while Vanderbilt is making its first appearance. The Texas Bowl features tie-ins primarily for the Big 12 and SEC, but neither conference has had a tremendous amount of success. In nine appearances the Big 12 has posted a 4-5 record, while the SEC is just 2-2. A good omen for Vanderbilt, though: 11 teams have made just one appearance in the Texas Bowl, and eight of those first-timers have won.
Enjoying a remarkable turnaround after going just 1-11 last season, Baylor is 6-6 in Year 2 under head coach Matt Rhule. The Bears’ march back to bowl eligibility after a one-year absence got off to a 3-1 start, including double-digit wins against UTSA and Kansas. Baylor subsequently hit a rough patch, losing five of its next seven, including a 33-point beatdown courtesy of Oklahoma in Norman but losing by just six to Texas in Austin. In the regular-season finale, the Bears played Texas Tech in Arlington, Texas, with both teams needing a win to become bowl eligible and Rhule's team got the job done, overcoming a halftime deficit to win 35-24.
Players to watch for the Bears are quarterback Charlie Brewer, running back John Lovett and wide receiver Denzel Mims. Brewer had 308 passing yards and three touchdowns in the bowl-clinching win over the Red Raiders while Lovett added 125 yards on 28 carries with a touchdown. Mims caught two of Brewer’s three touchdowns, and he will have to shoulder an even bigger load with top receiver and Nashville, Tennessee, native Jalen Hurd (knee) unavailable for this game against his hometown team.
In his fifth season at the helm of the Commodores, Derek Mason has an opportunity to achieve two firsts in his Vanderbilt tenure: win a bowl game and finish a season with a winning record. In his only previous attempt at completing the first, his Commodores lost the 2016 Independence Bowl to finish with a 6-7 record. Mason’s team enters with some momentum, though, having won the final two regular-season games to reach the magic number of six. All but one of Vanderbilt’s losses this season came to teams that the top 25 of the College Football Playoff rankings, but its 6-1 mark against unranked foes — including a 38-13 handling of Tennessee in the regular-season finale — provided the necessary ammunition to vault the Commodores into the postseason.
The offensive trio of quarterback Kyle Shurmur, running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb have been the main focal points this season for Vanderbilt. Shurmur is 156 passing yards away from 3,000, while Vaughn (1,001) just eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground, and Lipscomb needs 114 to reach that mark through the air. Shurmur’s performance against Tennessee was clinical, posting 367 yards and nearly as many touchdowns (three) as incompletions (four).
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl: Baylor (6-6) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Spread: Vanderbilt -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Offense = points?
Baylor comes into this one with the edge in total offense, averaging nearly 442 yards per game to Vanderbilt’s 398. However, the Bears put up just 28.3 points per game, which — barring an offensive explosion on Thursday — would mark their lowest scoring average since 2009, when Baylor produced 20.8 points per game and posted a 4-8 record. And for this game, Baylor must make do without leading receiver Jalen Hurd (knee injury). The Commodores aren't too far behind the Bears at 27.7 points per game, but Vanderbilt relies heavily on its defense to win games. Derek Mason’s defensive background shows, as his Commodores have allowed a little more than 25 points per game this season and are perfectly fine if this game is more of a grinder than a shootout.
2. Ball control
Between two teams so similar in a number of the important categories, one of the decisive factors is the turnover battle. The needle swings decisively to Vanderbilt here, as Baylor has struggled mightily in this area during the 2018 campaign. The Bears have twice as many turnovers (18) as takeaways (nine), while Vanderbilt has 13 and 21, respectively. Joejuan Williams and Frank Coppet lead the Commodores' secondary and have combined for seven interceptions thus far.
3. Red zone offense
These two teams both find themselves among the 10 worst in the FBS in red zone scoring, with Baylor at 75.5 percent and Vanderbilt at 74.5 percent (national average: 83.9 percent). Perhaps some of those red zone failures lie in aggressiveness inside the 20 and going for it on fourth down, which would make some sense since both teams are in the bottom half of the nation on fourth-down conversion percentage. But the lack of success in the red zone throughout the season is certainly troubling, so if either side can figure it out and convert on those opportunities it could be a harbinger of a season-ending win.
A winning record and momentum heading into 2019 at stake for both Baylor at Vanderbilt, there should be some added energy from both sides on Thursday. Matt Rhule can continue to restore order within the Baylor football program after being rocked by scandal, while Derek Mason has a chance to finish a season above .500 for the first time as the head man in Nashville. With this matchup in Houston, it’s a pseudo-home game for the Bears, but Baylor won only two games outside of Waco so a win is far from a guarantee.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Baylor 21
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.