We’ve hit the midway point of the college football season, and the familiar names of Alabama and Clemson remain atop the rankings. Behind those two teams, however, there has been plenty of drama and movement. Last week saw Oklahoma get upset by Iowa State and Michigan knocked off by rival Michigan State. Georgia continued its dominant play, giving SEC fans hope of potentially putting a pair of teams in the College Football Playoff.
In the race for the Group of 5 New Year’s Six bowl bid, San Diego State and South Florida seem to have some company in undefeated UCF and Navy. To break down the first half of the college football season, look ahead to the second half and, of course, break down this week’s SEC on CBS game of the week, we caught up with CBS Sports Network college football and NFL Draft analyst Corey Chavous. In a wide-ranging conversation, we broke down LSU-Auburn, looked into which teams might challenge the Tide and Tigers atop the rankings and highlighted some of this year’s NFL Draft prospects.
CBS Local Sports: LSU got back on track with a win last week, but this week provides a different challenge when Auburn comes to town. How does LSU slow down Auburn’s offense?
Corey Chavous: Well, the first thing they have to do is do a better job of getting off the field on third down. The problem is, I don’t know if you can do a better job of that, because Auburn is in the top 15 in the country in third-down efficiency. That has a lot to do with the quarterback play from Jarrett Stidham in recent weeks. LSU hasn’t been great this season at defending opponents on third down.
The other thing is, you have to be able to stop the Auburn running game and make them one-dimensional. You already saw what Jordan Chunn from Troy did against LSU. Granted, LSU has been fairly solid against the run this year, giving up just 4.2 yards per carry, so that game was a little bit of an outlier. But Auburn’s running game is much stronger; they already have 18 touchdowns on the ground this season.
CBS Local Sports: When you look at Auburn now after winning four in a row since that Clemson loss, do you see them having a chance to beat Alabama and make the trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game?
Corey Chavous: I thought in the beginning of the year that they would have a chance to challenge, because they had a quarterback that was coming in that was going to change things for them. He has played well and settled down as the season has gone along, after not getting off to a great start.
Again, the biggest thing with this team is they can run the football, and you have to consider that in two out of the last three games their top back, Kamryn Pettway, didn’t even play. Kerryon Johnson has been tremendous. He’s a burst player, a guy who can get to the edge quickly. He has missed a couple of games as well, including that Clemson game. Who knows what would have happened in that game had he been able to play? Their running game is the big key.
Right now, their offense is still underachieving a bit overall. They need Nate Craig-Myers to become what he was supposed to be coming out of high school. They do have some other guys who have stepped up, and Stidham has spread the ball around well to make some big plays. But they don’t have a consistent guy you can point to and say [that] this is the guy you have to take away.
CBS Local Sports: From a national perspective, it seems as if many people have Alabama and Clemson in one tier and then the rest of the teams in a tier below them right now. Which teams do you think are capable of challenging the Tide and Tigers?
Corey Chavous: There are a couple of teams that are capable of challenging those teams. Georgia has looked very impressive so far this year. You’ve got a lot of other teams that have stepped up in terms of how they’re playing defensively, Washington is one of the main examples of that, as they are second in the nation in total defense this season. Washington and Georgia are number two and number three in the country in defense, which ranks ahead of both Alabama and Clemson. And I’m a big believer that defense has a lot to do with winning championships.
Then there’s still Penn State, Wisconsin and, surprisingly you can throw undefeated Washington State in there as well. All of those teams are in the top 15 in defense. Add in teams like Ohio State, Auburn and even LSU, which is playing well on defense. All of these teams are getting it done on defense, and when I look at that, it lets me know that there’s a lot of experience on both sides of the ball.
CBS Local Sports: One of the the conferences that has surprised people this year with its depth is the American. Prior to the year, USF was seen as the favorite to win it, and while the Bulls have played well, they have competition from UCF and Navy, who are both also ranked in the Top 25. Where would you rank the American in terms of conference strength?
Corey Chavous: Well, they’ve been one of the better conferences the last several years. You have to keep in mind that, going back to the first year of the conference, 2013, you had two first-round picks at quarterback. They had more draft picks last year than the Big 12. Aside from that, East Carolina’s been down, Cincinnati’s been down, but East Carolina was near the top of the conference just a few years ago. Houston has had sustained success, beating Florida State in the 2015 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Navy, under Ken Niumatalolo, has been tremendous for years. South Florida had eight wins in 2015 then last year went out and won 11 games under Willie Taggart. SMU is starting to re-institutionalize itself under Chad Morris. Then you have Temple with back-to-back 10-win seasons, a conference championship a year ago. Tulane is really looking better under Willie Fritz. Tulsa went to a bowl game last year. They’ve been struggling this year, but I’m still a fan of Phillip Montgomery and what he’s capable of. Scott Frost has been tremendous at UCF. Remember, they didn’t even win a game two seasons ago. Then, they went to a bowl game last year, and this year they’re undefeated. Scott Frost’s name has to be mentioned among the hot coaching candidates this offseason.
This isn’t like they’ve just arrived as a conference. A lot of these teams played in the old Big East, and what they are and who they are now is just reflective of their history.
CBS Local Sports: With all that said, who’s the favorite to emerge as the champion of the AAC and potentially get the New Year’s Six bowl bid?
Corey Chavous: I wasn’t quite as high on South Florida going into the year as I am now. Charlie Strong, for whatever criticisms you can have of him, he usually has a pretty good defense. Right now, that’s what has come to play for South Florida. That’s why, I would imagine, you go out and make a hire like that when you have a Quinton Flowers at quarterback.
The other team I like a lot is UCF. I love their defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, he’s tremendous. I really like the way UCF is playing as a football team right now. That Memphis victory, the same Memphis team that beat UCLA, was impressive because of how dominant of a win that was and how well their quarterback is playing. UCF is the team to watch. They’re better than South Florida to me. They should have beaten USF at the end of last year. That game was really competitive until Quinton Flowers took it over late. What it’s going to come down to is how much UCF QB McKenzie Milton develops between now and that game against USF on November 24th.
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of Quinton Flowers, he’s a guy who has been talked about in terms of where he fits in at the next level. Where do you see him fitting in in the NFL?
Corey Chavous: He’s better suited as a running back. He’s actually regressed this year as a passer. That may have something to do with the scheme change. His statistics aren’t bad, but he’s just not as accurate as he was last year. Last season, he was around 63 percent completion percentage. This year, he’s right around 53 percent. His accuracy has always been hot and cold.
He’s averaging a couple yards less per carry as a runner as well. If there’s been a disappointment in the American Conference this year, it’s actually been Flowers’ lack of explosiveness. Some of the games have been blowouts, so that may have something to do with it as well. But he only has one 100-yard rushing performance this year.
CBS Local Sports: One of the other guys in the AAC who has gotten some talk in terms of NFL Draft potential is SMU wide receiver Courtland Sutton. How would you evaluate him in terms of fit in the NFL?
Corey Chavous: Courtland’s going to get a shot. I always get a little bit concerned when these redshirt sophomores get talked up during the draft process, as he was after last season. But a lot of scouts that I talk to had good grades on him last season as a red-shirt sophomore if he were to come out.
Last week’s game against Houston was a little uneven for him. He had 11 catches for 160 yards, and you’re thinking okay, that’s pretty good, and it was. All the skills that you want to see from him were on display. He showed good foot speed, the ability to “big boy” defensive backs. But there’s the occasional drop, and he had a key one on fourth down in that game. Two out of the last three games, he’s had an offensive pass interference called against him. He’s had drops in every game that I’ve evaluated him going back to last year.
That said, he’s still got a shot to be a very high draft pick, but he has to clean up some things going forward.
CBS Local Sports: As you continue to evaluate this class for next year’s draft, which quarterbacks are you looking at as guys that maybe aren’t getting as much love as they should be?
Corey Chavous: I know people are talking about Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State, but he’s a guy who’s going to continue to gain some buzz as the draft process moves along. He’s a senior, three-year starter, which is definitely something to take a look at when it comes to draft time.
One guy who I really like, who’s only a junior, is Eric Dungey from Syracuse. Again, I don’t want to really start promoting guys who are juniors because I know that can be taboo a little bit, but Dungey is a guy who has been very impressive to me for a two-year stretch now.
Another guy who is starting to get some Heisman talk now, and a lot of scouts I talk to are pretty high on and think he’s going to be a pretty good quarterback, is Luke Falk. Those are a couple of guys who aren’t necessarily under-the-radar guys but they’re guys who maybe aren’t talked about as much as Darnold or Rosen.
CBS Local Sports: The final guy I wanted to ask you about is Chukwuma Okorafor, the tackle from Western Michigan, whose name seems to be getting mentioned a little bit more recently. What have you seen from him in your evaluations so far?
Corey Chavous: He’s one of those guys who because he’s got some size, because he played opposite of Taylor Moton, who was a second-round pick for the Panthers, gets a lot of press. But when you really bear down on the tape and watch him against good pass rushers, he has a tendency to shorten the edge a little bit. So there’s going to be some technique work that he’s going to need to do. He plays a little bit straight up and down to me. He can bend his knees, but he’s not a consistent knee-bender.
He also gets a little bit antsy in trying to connect with his quick-set techniques. That sometimes leaves him susceptible to stuff over the top because he shortens the edge or the corner. Now, from the tape I’ve seen so far this year, he’s gotten a little bit better at that. But some of the guys he’s playing against aren’t NFL pass rushers. I haven’t had the chance to study his USC tape when he squared off with Owusu and Gustin. That’s the game I really want to watch him in and see how he plays against those guys. Because those are the games that I’ll talk with scouts about when he’s playing against players who are going to be playing at the next level. You won’t find many guys more indicative of what he’ll see at the next level than Gustin.