Baylor offense vs. Vanderbilt defense
Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer has delivered a solid season by passing for 2,635 yards and 17 touchdowns. The expected return of running back JaMycal Hasty from injuries should help the offense, but the Bears will be without leading receiver Jalen Hurd, who underwent knee surgery. Young receivers like Tyquan Thornton and Josh Fleeks will likely need to produce along with veterans Denzel Mims and Chris Platt. Vanderbilt’s defense has allowed 397.8 yards and 27.7 points per game, but SEC offenses aren’t as explosive as the dynamic offenses of the Big 12.
Baylor defense vs. Vanderbilt offense
Vanderbilt will throw a curveball at a Baylor defense that has faced wide-open spread offenses throughout the Big 12. The Commodores feature a pro-style attack which relies on a punishing running game and the accuracy of senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Ke’Shawn Vaughn leads the Commodores with 1,001 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping seven yards per carry. Shurmur has completed 64 percent for 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns while Kalija Lipscomb has made 81 catches for 886 yards and nine scores. A Baylor defense that has forced just nine turnovers this season will have difficulty rattling a veteran QB like Shurmur.
Key matchup: Baylor running backs vs. Vanderbilt defensive line
The Bears badly need more consistency in their running game against a Vanderbilt defensive line that has been suspect at times. Baylor is averaging 159.5 yards rushing per game, which is two more yards than Vanderbilt is averaging on the ground. But no one has made a major impact since John Lovett is Baylor’s leading rusher with 546 yards in 11 games. If JaMycal Hasty can produce, the Bears should be able to run against a Vanderbilt defense that’s allowing 187.2 yards rushing per game. If the Bears can get back on track on the ground, quarterback Charlie Brewer won’t have to carry such a heavy burden.
Baylor will be hurt by the loss of senior all-Big 12 punter Drew Galitz, who tore his ACL before the regular season finale against Texas Tech. Freshman Isaac Power could see his first action at punter or Connor Martin could handle both kicking and punting duties. Vanderbilt features one of the top punters in the SEC in Parker Thome, who is averaging 45.08 yards on 49 punts, but kicker Ryley Guay has hit just 12 of 20 field goals. Trey Ellis is a dangerous punt returner for the Commodores who is averaging 9.8 yards on 15 returns. Baylor’s punt and kick return squads have been mediocre all season.
Both the Bears and Commodores will come into the Texas Bowl with momentum. Vanderbilt needed to win its last two games against Mississippi and Tennessee to become bowl eligible at 6-6 while Baylor had to beat Texas Tech in its regular season finale to go bowling. The Bears should have a home-field advantage at Houston’s NRG Stadium since it’s three hours from Waco. If the Bears beat Vanderbilt, it will mark their third straight bowl win under a different coach. Art Briles’ squad beat North Carolina, 49-38, in his last game as Baylor’s coach in the 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl, while Jim Grobe’s team took a 31-12 win over Boise State in the 2016 Cactus Bowl.
— John Werner