It feels like we’d have a better chance at seeing Vanderbilt vs. Baylor when it comes to postseason college basketball, but these two teams will meet for the first time since 1954 in the Academy Sports & Outdoors Texas Bowl. Vanderbilt is either a 3.5-point or 4-point favorite with a total of 55 for this SEC vs. Big 12 battle.
Because the state of Texas is so big that it covers approximately 40 percent of the globe, the home field advantage for Baylor isn’t as big as you might think, but suffice it to say that it is a much shorter travel for their fans. As a result, you probably want to add something like a point or two of home field advantage to the underdogs here. It is only a three-hour drive from Waco and Vanderbilt doesn’t really have a great presence at home in Nashville, so it would be a surprise to see more than friends and family traveling to Houston for this one.
Both teams should be sufficiently motivated for this game. Vanderbilt certainly can’t take bowl game appearances for granted and Baylor has had a tumultuous few years with the fallout from all of the sexual assault allegations during the Art Briles tenure. This is only the eighth bowl game appearance in Vanderbilt’s history and the second for the upperclassmen on this roster. It is the 24th for Baylor, but the Bears missed last year with an ugly 1-11 record in what was a transitional year for Matt Rhule.
Getting to the magic six-win mark was a little sweeter for Derek Mason and his team because that bowl eligibility victory came against Tennessee in the last regular season game. Had Tennessee won, this may have been their bowl slot. Instead, it goes to the Commodores. Mason hasn’t had any earth-shattering seasons in Nashville, but given how hard it is to recruit with the heightened academic requirements, the fact that he has two bowl appearances in five seasons is quite impressive.
What he doesn’t have is a winning season, so that should provide some motivation for the ‘Dores. They haven’t had a winning season since 2013. It would be fitting if they had one this season, as this is the first time in a very, very long time that the Commodores have managed more than six yards per play. Vanderbilt’s 4.6 yards per carry made the difference, as junior transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn filled the shoes of all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb with a 1,000-yard season of his own. Kyle Shurmur was also solid with a 23/6 TD/INT ratio.
The Commodores needed every bit of that offensive upgrade because Mason, who is best known for defense as the former DC at Stanford, oversaw a defense that allowed 5.9 yards per play for the second time in three years. The Vanderbilt defense had its worst season since the Franklin era and got gashed for 5.5 yards per carry in conference play. Baylor’s offense isn’t all that potent and there is a lot of prep time, so the hope for Mason and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is that some extra time on the practice field and in the film room can help.
Not enough is being said about what Matt Rhule has done to turn around Baylor. Perhaps that’s because Baylor had a ton of raw talent when he arrived, but this was a pretty quick remodel. Rhule had to clean up the program off the field and then install a much different style of football on the field. It helped that Charlie Brewer showed so much promise at the end of last season. The true sophomore posted an 11/4 TD/INT ratio with a 68.1 percent completion rate last year. He battled injuries this year, but still posted a 17/8 TD/INT ratio. Baylor went from 3.4 yards per carry to 4.2 yards per carry and from 5.5 yards per play to 5.8. Those aren’t the eye-popping numbers of the Briles and Philip Montgomery era, but Baylor is moving in the right direction. Baylor will, however, be without top wide receiver Jalen Hurd in this game.
Baylor still has a lot of work to do on the defensive side. The Bears allowed over five yards per carry for the first time since 2011 and were also in the bottom half of the country against the pass. Vanderbilt doesn’t have a Big 12 offense, though. The Bears were torched for 8.4 yards per attempt by Big 12 foes. Say what you will about the running games of Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, and Texas Tech, but the Bears run defense did only allow 3.95 yards per carry in the last four games and only 5.57 yards per play. Maybe something clicked late in the year.
Texas Bowl Free Pick: Baylor Bears +4
Both teams should be excited for this one. This is Kyle Shurmur’s last college game and we’ll see if he latches on with an NFL team as a backup or a practice squad guy. His teammates would love to send him out a winner. Both teams played well down the stretch, as Baylor improved statistically by leaps and bounds in November and Vanderbilt won three of its last four to get to a bowl.
There really aren’t a whole lot of great edges for this one. Vanderbilt plays in the tougher conference, but faces a home field disadvantage. Mason and Rhule are on equal footing with bowl planning. Power ratings are a small measure of the equation here, but they’ll be the deciding factor for me in leaning with Baylor.