(CBSDFW.COM) — Matt Rhule has engineered a remarkable turnaround in his three seasons with Baylor. After going 1-11 in his first year, Rhule improved to 7-6 in Year 2. And this season the Bears made another jump, going 11-2 and finishing as runners-up in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma.
In fact both losses on the year came against the Sooners, and both in dramatic fashion. But, despite coming up just short of the conference title, Rhule has built something incredible in his short time in Waco in the aftermath of the Art Briles reign. Baylor will play Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Years Day. The team has the opportunity to do something the program has accomplished just once in its history — win a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The last time that Baylor won a New Year’s Six bowl (that’s the term for the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Rose, Cotton and Peach) was in 1979, when they beat Clemson 24-18 in the Peach Bowl. So, adding a win in this game would be a nice topper to a strong season. As CBS 11 Dallas sports anchor Keith Russell says, the Bears very well could be undefeated, and their head coach is one of the biggest rising stars in the country.
“Baylor has the hottest coach in the country, Matt Rhule. That is their strength,” said Russell. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, one of the best teams in the entire nation.”
But, the same could be said for their Sugar Bowl opponent, the Georgia Bulldogs. While Kirby Smart’s group isn’t quite as impressive as they were two years ago, when they fell just short of the national title, they are still a formidable team led by a nasty defense. There may not be as many highly recognized names on this year’s unit, but they have a ton of team speed, and collectively that makes it pretty difficult for opponents to move the ball.
On the season, the Bulldogs are allowing just 4.2 yards per play and 12.5 points per game to their opponents. They allowed more than 20 points just once this season, and that came in the SEC championship game against arguably the best offense in the country — LSU. Baylor, while solid on offense, is not of the same caliber as LSU on that side of the ball. They did average 6.1 yards per play during the regular season, but much of that came with Charlie Brewer at quarterback. It remains unclear whether Brewer will play in this game, as he is dealing with the effects of a concussion sustained against Oklahoma.
If he is unable to play, the Bears would likely have to start third-string QB Jacob Zeno, who did well in relief of Gerry Bohanon in the Big 12 title game, when Bohanon went down with a sprained MCL. Still, a third-string QB against this Georgia defense is not exactly what Bears fans are hoping to see come January 1st.
The good news is, the Bears defense has been similarly strong throughout the season. Baylor has allowed just 4.7 yards per play and 19.3 points per game to opponents this year. They did show some holes, however, against the running game, which is a problem going against a Georgia team that is built around their rushing attack. D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Zamir White form a three-headed monster that has gained an average of 190 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry this season.
However, Georgia can be a bit one-dimensional, especially when considering the injuries currently plaguing their passing game. The Bulldogs lost Dominick Blaylock to a knee injury during the SEC title game. Kearis Jackson suffered an ankle injury that has him listed as questionable. And Lawrence Cager, Jake Fromm’s top target, is recovering from ankle, shoulder and rib injuries. While he is listed as probable to play, he certainly won’t be 100%. Further complicating matters for Georgia? Both of their starting tackles (Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson) and Swift have declared for the draft and will skip this game.
All of that considered, Russell believes that this Baylor team has enough to hand the Bulldogs their second consecutive loss in the Sugar Bowl.
“I’m taking Baylor. I like Georgia. Georgia just two years ago was in the national title game against Alabama. Jake Fromm was the quarterback then, he is still the quarterback now,” said Russell. “But, I like Baylor. I think this Baylor team is hot, I think they could have run the table. This has been a magical season in Waco, and I think it continues in the Sugar Bowl.”
The oddsmakers disagree at the moment, with Georgia listed as 7-point favorites. They’re also expecting a lower-scoring affair, with the over/under line set for just 41.5 points, which is understandable considering the strength of both teams is their defense. One final point to consider… Baylor is 4-0 against the spread as underdogs this year, while Georgia played every game (except for LSU) as the favorite and went just 7-5 against the number.
Kick-off for the Allstate Sugar Bowl is set for January 1, 2020 at 7:45 p.m. CST.