Thursday, Dec. 27, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
NRG Stadium, Houston
Free NCAAF Pick: Commodores ATS
Best Line Offered: Pinnacle
Vanderbilt seeks its first bowl win since 2013, its first under coach Derek Mason. Baylor must feel ecstatic to have made it to a bowl game after going 1-11 last year under then-first year coach Matt Rhule.
How They Got Here
Vanderbilt took Notre Dame and Kentucky down to the wire, but couldn’t get a win against a ranked opponent. It beat Ole Miss in overtime and blew out Tennessee to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. The Commodores have covered five in a row. Baylor beat one team that qualified for a bowl, Oklahoma State at home, after the Cowboys upset Texas. The Bears took care of business against opponents with a losing record and beat Texas Tech in the season finale for its sixth win.
Why Baylor Can Win/Cover
Baylor’s offensive line can win the battle in the trenches. Vanderbilt’s defensive line ranks 123rd in opportunity rate, meaning that it does a really poor job at preventing opposing running backs from gaining at least four yards. Vandy’s weakness in this area is unsurprising considering how porous its run defense was last year after it lost its top defensive lineman and after losing two starting defensive linemen heading into this season. The Commodores allow five YPC, which ranks 97th in the category. Baylor’s o-line ranks 47th in opportunity rate and Baylor has covered its last three games when rushing for over 140 yards.
Why Vanderbilt Can Win/Cover
The Bears’ pass defense is vulnerable. It struggles to get sacks, which would have been helpful because a notorious weakness of Vandy’s quarterback Kyle Shurmur is his tendency to hang onto the ball for too long and take sacks. Baylor ranks 72nd in sack rate against FBS teams. Baylor’s secondary has remained healthy this season, which is why it has jumped up 20 spots in opposing passer rating from last year’s ranking. But the Bears still rank only 97th in the category. The Bears are also vulnerable to big plays especially in the passing game, ranking 112th in IsoPPP+. Vandy’s o-line ranks 41st in rate of sacks allowed despite Shurmur’s bad habits. Shurmur is an efficient quarterback completing 64 percent of his passes with a playmaker in Kalija Lipscomb who has achieved 81 receptions and 886 receiving yards. He won’t outrun Baylor’s defensive backs but he will extend for deep balls and thrive after the catch. Vandy is 4-1 ATS when Shurmur throws for 230+ yards.
Common Opponents/Series History
Both teams faced a playoff opponent. Vanderbilt nearly upset Notre Dame, losing 22-17 against the Wimbush-led Irish, who had built up a solid lead and then became very conservative on offense for fear of its quarterback making mistakes. Oklahoma had no such reservations against Baylor, which it blew out 66-33.
Vanderbilt will execute a balanced offense against the Bears, led by Shurmur and Lipscomb in the passing game and Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the running game. Vaughn has rushed for 1,001 yards on seven YPC, including 5.4 against Notre Dame, and 8+ against both Florida and Georgia. Baylor ranks 94th in opposing YPC.
Baylor’s pass attack will be limited by the absence of its top wide receiver, Jalen Hurd, who’s injured. Hurd had 20 more receptions and 250 more yards than Baylor’s next-best receiver. The Bears’ rush attack won’t exploit Vandy’s defensive weakness well enough because it doesn’t have anything like a go-to running back. Baylor ranks 94th in YPC despite facing numerous weak rushing defenses in the Big 12 plus Duke and two cupcakes. Plus, its second-best running back JaMycal Hasty is listed as ‚questionable’ with a knee injury.
Conversely, Vanderbilt’s poor numbers are probably overstated because of the solid offensive lines and running backs that it faced in the SEC like Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri, all of which rank top 40 in YPC and top 25 in opportunity rate. Overall, Vandy ranks 12th in strength of schedule, Baylor 48th. Another edge is that Vandy is the 25th-least penalized team, Baylor the 18th-most. Moreover, Vandy ranks 112 spots higher than Baylor in turnover margin.