The ways you could dissect this year’s Orange Bowl compose a veritable plethora, and we will try to cover as many of them as possible between now and New Year’s Eve. In part one of an as-many-parts-as-it-takes series, we look at the quarterback situation for both sides. While the circumstances are different for Georgia and Michigan, similarities exist that are fairly intriguing.
The general or at least loudest-voiced sentiment among Bulldog fans is JT Daniels should be the starter going forward, or perhaps five-star true freshman Brock Vandagriff, heck, anybody but Stetson Bennett. Heisman trophy winner Bryce Young had his way in Atlanta with the Georgia defense, throwing for 421 yards, scoring four touchdowns, and Bennett simply could not keep pace. The Bulldogs were in unfamiliar territory: counting on their quarterback to win them a game, and the comeback effort never really got off the ground, owing in part to a couple interceptions, the dagger a pick-six. Georgia is now dealing with its first bout of adversity in an otherwise dominant season.
Michigan, on the other hand, was dealt its first blow at the end of October, a gut punch courtesy of its intrastate rival. The Wolverines have been slowly building up steam ever since, mainly due to a technically sound but violent offensive line and its punishing ground attack, which was used ad nauseum to vanquish archrival Ohio State. A week later, Michigan steamrolled Iowa in the B1G Championship Game with the help of explosive plays and a stifling defense. The Wolverines are clearly heading into this playoff with a great deal of confidence and momentum on their side.
The two teams’ emotional states may not jibe currently, but the Maize and Blue have had their share of quarterback controversy this year. Despite winning its first seven games, many fans clamored for freshman J.J. McCarthy to assume the starting role. The main argument was, while Cade McNamara is the game manager who will protect the football and not lose you football games, he didn’t provide a high enough ceiling to beat rivals, particularly Ohio State, and to compete for a national championship. It wasn’t until Michigan’s historic win over the Buckeyes a couple weeks ago that fans no longer had to believe but could see with their own eyes what this team is capable of with McNamara at the helm. There still may be some factions in and around Ann Arbor that are hoping against hope Harbaugh makes the bold, unexpected move to insert McCarthy full-time in an attempt to gain an edge, but the consensus is this is McNamara’s team and they are prepared to see how far he can lead it … until such time the Wolverines are trailing by 14, in which case, the keys are now and forever McCarthy’s.
Who should start and who has the edge?
For argument’s sake, let’s assume Daniels is healthy. For sanity’s sake, let’s dispense with the idea Kirby Smart is going to consider starting a man whose lone collegiate pass attempt was an incompletion against FCS Charleston Southern. Does JT Daniels (or J.J. McCarthy for that matter) give his team the best shot at winning the playoff? In an attempt to make a rational, objective, and dispassionate decision, I pulled data on all four quarterbacks in question. Each of the players’ years of play stand alone and are measured against one another, and what I found may surprise you.
Daniels’ quarterback rating last year was highest at 178.5 and 1.7 points better than Bennett’s QBR this year but was achieved as a result of playing just four games, compared with Bennett’s 12 (against FBS) this year. Michigan’s McCarthy’s QBR of 163.2 is a staggering 17.8 points higher than McNamara’s, but the freshman has only attempted 42 passes, which can’t compare to McNamara’s 308. You might push back by claiming the reason Bennett and McNamara have larger sample sizes is because the head coaches have been playing the wrong quarterbacks – that if each player had been given the same opportunities, the backup would have clearly emerged as the better option. My only retort pertains to Georgia and that’s that Daniels had his shot at an equal sample size back in 2018 at USC, and 2021 Bennett blows those numbers out of the water (Bennett’s QBR is nearly 50 points higher, has thrown two more touchdowns for every interception, and is gaining nearly three more yards per attempt). Bennett’s 10.1 yards per attempt really is astounding, second only in the nation to Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall (12.1), whose team’s strength of schedule according to Jeff Sagarin ranks no. 148, or 112 spots below Georgia’s. It’s Bennett’s yards per attempt and QBR that make it easy to award Georgia a pretty sizeable edge over Michigan at the quarterback position.
If you’re a Michigan fan, you might be inclined to point out that McCarthy plays, albeit limited, a significant role in the offense, something Georgia’s backup cannot boast. And before I crunched the numbers, I would have agreed with you and been willing to consider this a push. But I have crunched the numbers, specifically those I call “meaningful snaps.” Meaningful snap here is defined as one that takes place while it’s still a two-possession ballgame. Despite playing in 10 games this season, McCarthy has only taken 13 meaningful snaps in a Michigan uniform. Against the Badgers, he had just two meaningful snaps, a nice quarterback sneak, where his teammates pushed him into the end zone, and later a six-yard run. In East Lansing, by far his most active game, McCarthy took seven snaps. His first was his best, a 17-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman Andrel Anthony to give the Wolverines an 8-point lead. But half of his other six snaps resulted in one no gain and two fumbles. McCarthy appeared for three plays against Ohio State and averaged an outstanding 14.3 yards per snap. Lastly, in the B1G Championship Game, McCarthy took one meaningful snap and gained three yards, excluding the hail Mary interception to end the first half.
Ever since the loss to Michigan State, McCarthy’s meaningful snaps have been on the decline. Now, he might have played more against Iowa if the Hawkeyes had done a better job of keeping that one close, but the idea that McCarthy is some kind of X-factor for Michigan is chimerical. McNamara gains 1.6 more yards per pass attempt than McCarthy does per play.
It’s also noteworthy McCarthy didn’t play a down against Washington (first Power-5 non-conference game), Rutgers (B1G opener), and Penn State (the first true test after losing to MSU and with the season hanging in the balance). The fact he sat out those games and has played sparingly in meaningful situations makes me doubt we’ll see much of the freshman in the school’s first semifinal appearance. If you’re still not convinced the coaching staff lacks trust in McCarthy, consider that, on third down, he has yet to record a run or a pass against a Power-5 opponent, except when the game was already well out of hand. McCarthy may well be the future for Michigan, but thus far he’s proven to be on quite the short leash.
I know many of you Georgia fans are ready for Smart to make the switch and perhaps have been ready for a while, but, on paper, that’s an uncalculated risk. This is for a shot to play for the national title, and, while championships aren’t won on paper, it’s hard to envision Smart jeopardizing what appears to be a clear advantage at quarterback in this semifinal.