FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — At the beginning of Michigan’s season, a controversy emerged: freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy came in as a highly-touted 5-star recruit and flashed his talent early on with impressive plays. Junior Cade McNamara, meanwhile, played steady and consistent, but didn’t make the same 40-yard throws after scrambling away from a rush.
But then McNamara grew into the position and became the leader of the team, while offensive coordinator Josh Gattis found a way to work McCarthy into a supporting role.
“When you have two players like Cade and J.J., just the unselfishness of those two guys has allowed us to be where we are today.” Gattis said Monday. “Because when you’re going through a situation where you’re playing multiple quarterbacks, that can either make or break your team.”
Meanwhile, Georgia, the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff semifinal opponent, still hasn’t escaped its quarterback controversy. With Stetson Bennett IV taking over the starting spot through an injury to J.T. Daniels, he’s held onto that spot despite Daniels’ return to health and will be the starter in the Orange Bowl. That decision doesn’t stop the controversy, though.
“We’ve tried to elevate guys that have talent on our roster, and we do that at every position, and some guys just combat that and fight and scratch and continue to play well and try to prove you wrong, and that’s what Stetson Bennett did,” Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Wednesday.
Bennett has maintained a 64% completion rate with 24 touchdowns and averages 194 passing yards a game. Daniels, on the other hand, has a 72.3% completion rate and averages 120 yards a game.
Recently, Bennett’s inability to lead a comeback in the SEC Championship against Alabama has drummed up discontent in the Bulldogs’ fanbase.
Still, Bennett has a plethora of weapons to connect with through the air, starting with 6-foot-4 tight end Brock Bowers. Coming in as the third-most prolific tight end in the nation with 791 reception yards, Bowers is also tied at 14th in the nation in receiving touchdowns, regardless of position.
One of Bowers’ strengths, as Michigan junior defensive back D.J. Turner noted Wednesday, is his run after catch ability and willingness to fight through contact.
“He’s probably got more range than we thought,” Monken said of Bowers. “We knew he had the run-after-catch ability. We saw that on tape. They used him in the backfield out of high school, but he’s got a little more range than we thought and he’s continued to develop as a route runner. But he works awfully hard at his craft. It’s important to him.”
Bennett’s other dangerous weapon — wide receiver George Pickens — has less tape on him due to an ACL injury that sidelined him until the regular season finale. Pickens led the team in receiving touchdowns last season with six, while also notching 513 receiving yards.
Now, with an extra month to heal, Georgia’s biggest preseason offensive weapon will be fully healthy.
Michigan’s secondary, meanwhile, will have to adjust to covering those weapons. While the Bulldogs’ offense isn’t the trademark of the team, it only averages nine fewer yards than the Wolverines’.
“They’ve got great skill guys all across the board, guys that can really hurt you at any point during the game,” Macdonald said. “The stress points of our zones and when we play man-to-man, when we pressure, when we don’t, that’ll kind of be an interesting chess game throughout the game.”
Turner and the rest of Michigan’s secondary will have a battle with the second-most talented receiving core it has faced all season. If past results are any indicator, perhaps the Wolverines are in good hands.
Against the most talented, Ohio State, Michigan’s secondary acquitted itself well. It managed to stay strong when it needed to and forced quarterback C.J. Stroud to hold onto the ball long enough for senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson to wreak havoc.
In the Orange Bowl, the secondary will need to do the same thing.