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Two weeks ago, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh chose to prolong the much-debated quarterback competition between sophomore J.J. McCarthy and senior Cade McNamara. Neither player had separated themselves through fall camp, and Harbaugh — always infatuated with competition — wanted to see it play out on the field. 

Up until Saturday’s press conference following Michigan’s win over Hawaii, Harbaugh remained adamant that he had yet to name a starter. He was careful not to praise one player without complementing the other; He mused about his biblical approach and reminded reporters that no one knew what the future held. 

This time, though, Harbaugh didn’t have lengthy tribulations to help him dodge questions about naming a starter. It took him less than 30 seconds to prove his mind was made up. 

“We’ll start J.J. next week,” Harbaugh said. “He’s earned that by performance, by merit.”

McCarthy carved up the Rainbow Warriors’ defense and left zero doubt that he should be the starting quarterback moving forward. He twirled in crisp passes, effortlessly moving the offense down the field for easy scores. It was a thrilling encore to the mobility he displayed against Colorado State, proving his arm is just as much a threat as his legs. 

Harbaugh made it clear he had two worthy candidates to be QB1 and the best player was going to win the job. In response, McCarthy handed in a damn near flawless resume, proving the hype surrounding him since he committed in 2019 was warranted. 

Now it’s true, the teams that Michigan has faced so far haven’t been the strongest opposition. Frankly, they may be some of the worst teams in the FBS. But McCarthy looked exactly how a highly touted, former five-star prospect should look against an overmatched opponent. McNamara, on the other hand, simply did not.

McCarthy produced touchdowns on five of his first six drives without a hitch. Then McNamara, facing the same defense with the same resources at his disposal, floundered. His first drive ended in a sack and as he jogged off the field, boos rained down from the student section — the same section that flooded the field in jubilation when he led the Wolverines over Ohio State just last November. 

But that’s the bitter pill Harbaugh finally had to swallow on Saturday. The Wolverines know what their ceiling is with McNamara — and it’s a pretty high ceiling, one that can win a Big Ten Championship. But with McCarthy they can shatter right through it. 

It’s a situation Harbaugh is actually familiar with. In 2012, when he was head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, his team started 6-2 with Alex Smith at quarterback, who had led them to the NFC championship the year prior. But in Week 10, Harbaugh gave the start to his upstart second year QB Colin Kaepernick, who possessed a dual threat ability that Smith just lacked. 

Kapernick got the chance to showcase himself in prime time in a Monday Night Football showdown against the Chicago Bears and thrived — throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns. For Harbaugh, there was a little deja vu under the lights against Hawaii. 

“It’s very similar,” Harbaugh said. “A lot like that Monday night game that Colin played against the Bears, that looked a lot like what J.J. was able to do out there tonight.”

When Harbaugh did pivot to Kaepernick, he never looked back and the 49ers made a run all the way to the Super Bowl — still the closest Harbaugh has come to winning a championship. 

And a national championship is what Harbaugh craves more than anything.

It’s why he flirted with NFL openings, hoping to have another chance to pursue his dream of finally hoisting a Lombardi. It’s why, when he ended up remaining at the helm in Ann Arbor, he declared winning a national championship would suffice just as much.

Harbaugh has now had a taste of the College Football Playoff, and a quick assessment of the current college football landscape shows that his team this year has a pretty good shot to get back. 

But Harbaugh doesn’t just want an invite anymore. And he knows with an elite quarterback, reaching the pinnacle of college football can be more than just a far-fetched talking point. 

Harbaugh waited as long as he could. But after McCarthy’s electrifying performance on Saturday, there were no more cliches left to say about the quarterback competition.  

Moving forward, there’s only one option, and it’s McCarthy.

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