If you find yourself feeling somewhat conflicted over Michigan's 7-0 start to the 2021 season, you're certainly not alone. After all, the Wolverines have experienced a 7-0 start just five times in the last 45 years - meaning what you're currently experiencing as a Michigan fan is pretty damn rare.
Given the early success, you'd think that most of the maize and blue faithful would be excited and optimistic about the current trajectory of the season. As it turns out, many are still holding out - and doing so for one very specific reason.
In spite of the fact that Michigan features a top-five rushing attack (253.3 ypg) and the No. 2 defense in the nation in points allowed (14.3), many within the fanbase still find themselves fixated on the shortcomings of Michigan's passing attack.
Through the first seven weeks of the season, Michigan ranks in the bottom third in all of college football in passing yards per game (189.4) and total touchdowns (7). As a comparison, Ohio State is currently No. 5 in the nation with 352.1 passing yards per game and No. 4 with 24 touchdowns through the air.
While junior quarterback Cade McNamara is completing 62.7 percent of his passes, most of the completions seem to be the result of bubble screens, shovel passes and quick-hitters within 10 yards or so. It's only when things break down, or when the Wolverines attempt to stretch the ball down the field, that the deficiencies in the passing game with McNamara become apparent.
When true freshman quarterback JJ McCarthy is presented with those same scenarios, the deficiencies in the passing game seemingly transform into possibilities in the passing game. Whether it's with his arm or his legs, McCarthy has shown the type of athleticism that leads you to believe that the Michigan offense is capable of so much more when he's on the field.
It began in week one with an incredible cross-field throw from McCarthy to Daylen Bladwin for a 69-yard touchdown. McCarthy did it again in week five on the road in Madison, once again finding Bladwin by dropping the ball in the bucket for a 56-yard touchdown pass - his only pass of the afternoon.
On Saturday against Northwestern, McCarthy entered the game in the third quarter and proceeded to break off two runs for 36 yards, putting the Wolverines in scoring position. Both runs were electric as McCarthy weaved his way through defenders and made something out of nothing each time. The crowd was alive, the team was alive, the drive was alive. Then, for some reason, McCarthy was replaced by McNamara and the Wolverines - who looked to be headed for the end zone - would ultimately settle for a Jake Moody field goal.
The strange sequence of events from that drive on Saturday and the results that followed served as the perfect microcosm of the conflict many Michigan fans are currently dealing with. On one hand, McNamara has led the Wolverines to a perfect 7-0 record and a No. 6 ranking in the latest AP Poll. On the other hand, McCarthy has repeatedly shown the type of abilities that we simply haven't seen from a Michigan quarterback in a very, very long time - and the includes Cade McNamara.
For example, McCarthy made an unbelievable play on Saturday with the Wolverines facing a fourth down conversion. The freshman QB took the snap out of the shotgun, scrambled out of the pocket, made three wildcat defenders miss and hit a dime to tight end Carter Selzer for a first down.
Though it would ultimately be called back due to an unrelated penalty, there isn't another quarterback on the Michigan roster that can make that play.
You can watch the video below:
That's the type of ability that wins you championships.
Of course, the backdrop for all of this debate over the quarterback centers around a brutal upcoming schedule and a movie that Michigan fans have seen far too many times. It's the movie where things start out really promising, only to lead to utter heartbreak in October and November.
Admittedly, this season is starting to feel different under seventh year head coach Jim Harbaugh - but there's also eerie similarities to its predecessors.
Harbaugh's all-time record against Michigan's first seven opponents of the 2021 season is 19-3, meaning a 7-0 record at this point shouldn't seem all that surprising in hindsight. However, Harbaugh's all-time record against the next five Michigan opponents is 16-12 - meaning one, two or even three losses over the next five weeks wouldn't be out of the norm. Unbelievably painful if you're a Michigan fan, but certainly not out of the norm.
To be clear, I think McNamara is a good quarterback. He's done everything that's been asked of him, most importantly taking care of the football and avoiding turnovers. There's no question that McNamara deserves some of the credit for Michigan's phenomenal 7-0 start. At the same time, there are still legitimate concerns to be had over whether or not this brand of offense - led by McNamara - is capable of winning a Big Ten championship.
For many, the difference at this point in the season between a 9-3 finish (i.e. heartbreak) and a possible Big Ten trophy is a talented kid by the name of JJ McCarthy.