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Michigan football: how high is JJ McCarthy’s ceiling?

Could the rising junior bring Michigan football its 12th National Championship in 2023?



Dec 31, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) passes against the TCU Horned Frogs in the fourth quarter of the 2022 Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan football is in an excellent position heading into the 2023 season as they return a large portion of their production from a year ago. This return of production including crucial spots like the quarterback position. Specifically, JJ McCarthy for his junior season after a strong sophomore campaign.

As Michigan’s highest-ranked quarterback recruit since Ryan Mallett back in the class of 2007, McCarthy has had high expectations since he first stepped foot on campus. Following a 13-1 season in his first year starting, including a second straight Big Ten title and a trip to the college football playoff, many are projecting great things for the soon-to-be junior play-caller.

Just how good was McCarthy in 2022?

McCarthy did have a rough stretch in the heart of Big Ten play, as he averaged 148.0 passing yards per game during a four-game run from mid-October to November. Still, he played really well overall on the season and, honestly, as good as you can ask from a first-year starting true sophomore. Also, it should be noted that McCarthy by no means played terribly in that stretch, as the Wolverines went 4-0, and McCarthy was responsible for seven touchdowns compared to just one turnover.

For Michigan football to achieve its goals, they needed McCarthy to play better in the latter half of the season, and McCarthy delivered just that. In the season’s final three games, beginning with Michigan’s 22-point road victory in Columbus, McCarthy threw for 767 yards passing and eight touchdowns while adding another pair of scores with his legs.

Even in the lone loss of the season, a disappointing six-point decision in the Fiesta Bowl against TCU, McCarthy threw for a career-high 343 yards and nearly willed his team back to victory from 21-6 and 34-16 deficits. In the end, the offense scored 45 points, which was the eighth time the offense put up at least 40 points and should have been more than enough to secure the win.

McCarthy’s final stat line for the season was 208 completions on 322 attempts (64.6 percent), for 2,719 passing yards (8.4 yards per attempt) and 22 touchdowns with just five interceptions (4.4 touchdown/interception ratio). McCarthy achieved this without starting all 14 games and only attempted 16 passes through the first two games.

Where does his season rank in Wolverine history?

While compared to some of the gaudy numbers other quarterbacks have been putting up in college football over the past decade, McCarthy’s stats may not seem super impressive on paper. Still, he’s already made an impact on the Wolverine record book. McCarthy’s 2,719 passing yards are currently good for 8th all-time in a season by a Michigan football quarterback. In five of those seven seasons with more passing yards, a senior quarterback was responsible, and only one other (Chad Henne with 2,743 yards in 2004) was by an underclassman.

Even more impressively, his 22 passing touchdowns finished tied for 6th all-time in a season and fell just three shy of tying the school record. Elvis Grbac’s 25 touchdowns in 1991, the season in which he set the school record, is the only other time a quarterback has thrown for at least 22 touchdowns on less than 325 attempts. So not only was McCarthy efficient with the ball, but he was also responsible, as his five interceptions were the fewest in an entire season by a Michigan starting quarterback since Drew Henson had just four in 2000. That season, he threw over 100 fewer passes than McCarthy did last season.

McCarthy’s 4.4 touchdowns per one interception in 2022 finished as the highest TD/interception ratio in school history, dating back to 1906 when the forward pass was first legalized. Only two other quarterbacks finished a season with a ratio above 4.0: Grbac in 1991 and Henson in 2000.

What should be the expectation in 2023?

After what was arguably a top-five quarterback season in school history, how will 2023 look for McCarthy? Much of that depends on the moving pieces around him. Namely, how well first-year passing game coordinator and new quarterbacks coach Kirk Campbell performs, along with a new look receiving core. Regardless, if McCarthy plays in at least 13 games next season, hopefully up to 15, then breaking every single-season passing record should be on the table.

While that may sound unfair or unrealistic, it should be noted that many of Michigan’s passing records are stuck decades in the past as twenty college quarterbacks would have broken the single-season yards record (3,331) this past season, and twenty-five would have set a new touchdown record as well.

While stats and records are great, the most crucial factor in a successful season for McCarthy will once again be the number of Wolverine wins. Especially victories in East Lansing, Happy Valley, and chiefly Michigan’s third straight over the Buckeyes for the first time since 1995-97. Not to mention another Big Ten title and the school’s first-ever playoff win.

No Michigan quarterback has ever won the Heisman trophy, and just three have even finished in the top five in voting (Bob Timberlake finishing 4th in 1964, Rick Leach finishing 3rd in 1978 and Jim Harbaugh finishing 3rd in 1986). Still, if McCarthy does lead the Wolverines back to the playoffs while setting a school record or two along the way, Michigan football could see a Wolverine quarterback in New York for the first time in nearly 40 years.

First, one game at a time, though. East Carolina is officially on the clock.

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