Vanderbilt will face off against Baylor in the 2018 Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bow in Houston, Texas on December 27.
Before the two teams take the field, get to know the Commodores’ opponents, the Bears, with insights from Ben Everett, the editor of The Baylor Lariat.
For more Baylor sports coverage, follow Ben on Twitter @Ben_Everett0 and @BULariatSports.
Vanderbilt Hustler: How would you characterize this season and the team’s momentum going into this game for Baylor?
Ben Everett: It’s been quite a journey for Baylor football this year. With the talent on the roster and head coach Matt Rhule proclaiming the team would make a bowl game before the season started, the Baylor fanbase fully expected a postseason berth. After losing a home game to Duke in the non-conference schedule, many questioned Baylor’s ability to get to six wins. Winning four games in the Big 12 is a tough thing to do. The Bears held serve at home in conference play with the exception of a 16-9 offensive nightmare against rival TCU on senior night. Facing a high-powered Texas Tech offense in the final week of the regular season, the Bears had to win to receive a bowl bid. Baylor put together arguably its most complete performance of the season in a 35-24 win. Consistency on both sides of the ball has been an issue for the Bears, but the momentum surrounding the team hasn’t been higher under Rhule.
VH: How big of a loss is Jalen Hurd for the offense? Who could step up in his place?
BE: Jalen Hurd sitting out the bowl game is a major blow to Baylor’s offense. Hurd has been the Bears’ best receiver and one of the team’s best backs. A few receivers could step up against Vanderbilt. Speedy freshman Josh Fleeks will start in Hurd’s place, but also look out for junior Marques Jones and freshman Tyquan Thornton. Fleeks, like Hurd, can be used at receiver or running back and has a bright future ahead of him. Thornton is a tall, lanky speedster who has the ability to “Moss” defenders with his jumping ability. Jones, a former walk-on, earned a scholarship this year and has come up with catches in key moments.
VH: Kyle Shurmur has had himself a remarkable senior season. Do you feel Baylor is equipped to handle a mature pocket quarterback like Shurmur?
BE: With the exception of West Virginia’s Will Grier, the Baylor defense has had more trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks this season. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Oklahoma State’s Taylor Cornelius and K-State’s multi-faceted rushing offense gave the Bears fits. Grier is probably the only great pocket passer the Bears faced this season, and he might be the best in the country in that regard. With a veteran secondary, Baylor should be ready to take on Shurmur, but it will be an interesting matchup for sure. Baylor’s pass rush, especially All-Big 12 Honorable Mention DE James Lynch, could be the key.
VH: Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been a home-run back when he’s been healthy this year. How has Baylor handled other explosive running backs this season?
BE: As I mentioned in the previous answer, Baylor’s rush defense has been subpar and inconsistent. Throughout the season, the Bears gave up inexplicable big plays time and time again to players like K-State running back Alex Barnes, TCU do-it-all receiver Jalen Reagor and others. Vaughn could be the key to the game for the Commodores.
VH: What is your game prediction and why?
BE: This has the chance to be a great matchup as the Bears and Commodores are somewhat evenly matched on paper. Not having Hurd leaves a huge hole in the Baylor offense, but I think Rhule will have his team ready to fill that void. That being said, the Bears have struggled mightily against good defenses, so I don’t expect this to be a high-scoring game. I’ll give Vanderbilt the edge 24-17 given their experience and maturity on offense.