The Michigan quarterback battle was one of the most intriguing of the offseason, but it still has not been decided with a Week 1 game against Colorado State on the horizon. Instead, the No. 8 Wolverines will give Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy a chance to start a game each before making a decision, marking a continuation of the competition into the 2022 season.
Coach Jim Harbaugh announced Saturday that McNamara, the incumbent starter, will start the season opener against the Rams while McCarthy, last year’s backup, will take the first-team snaps in Week 2 vs. Hawaii. A full-time starter and backup will then be made in Week 3 based on each quarterback’s starting performance.
“We have made a decision,” said Harbaugh in a statement. “Both quarterbacks have played great — done everything they could have … to win the starting job. Coming out of camp, I just feel like we have two quarterbacks, Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, that we feel very confident that we can win a championship with either of those two behind center.”
McNamara threw for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions last year, while McCarthy threw for 516 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions serving as a backup and changeup option.
“It’s a great thing for our team but there’s only one ball and only one quarterback can be out there at a time,” said Harbaugh.
Let’s break down what this means for Michigan moving forward …
The schedule allows indecisiveness
The old adage says that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none. That isn’t necessarily the case here, though.
Would Harbaugh make the decision to go with a different starter in the first two weeks if Michigan played a tough nonconference schedule? Probably not, but he doesn’t have to worry about that with the Rams and Rainbow Warriors coming to Ann Arbor to start the year.
Harbaugh is using the first two games of the season as auditions, and then he gets the luxury of playing UConn in Week 3. The eventual winner of the quarterback battle can then get four full quarters under his belt before the Wolverines host Maryland in their Big Ten opener on Sept. 24.
It’s not ideal that the competition has bled into the season — every coach wants an unquestioned No. 1 signal-caller heading into Week 1 — but it isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Harbaugh was afforded the luxury of not being pressed to make a premature decision, and he took it.
Is there upside, though?
It’s one thing to decide between two top-end studs who have proven to be difference-makers in college. That isn’t the case here, though. McNamara was more of a game-manager during last season’s run to the Big Ten championship and berth in the College Football Playoff, and it showed in the Orange Bowl when the Wolverines couldn’t muster anything offensively against eventual national champion Georgia.
Is that all McNamara can provide, or is there more in the tank that he didn’t show last season? That’s the mystery, and it is why there’s some doubt whether this is a championship-caliber team heading into the season.
Did McCarthy create a culture of competition that raised the bar for both player, or has the former five-star prospect in the Class of 2021 not lived up to the hype? Maybe he’s been unable to pass McNamara despite lots of fanfare. Those seem to be the only two options, and this is why there’s lingering doubt about the future of Harbaugh’s Wolverines.