Is J.J. McCarthy’s Michigan’s greatest QB? National title would validate Jim Harbaugh’s claim

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s first Rose Bowl pass nearly ended in disaster. 

McCarthy, who was trying to throw the ball away down the sideline, threw the ball directly to Alabama safety Caleb Downs on the first play from scrimmage. McCarthy trotted off the field toward Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. 

“I was expecting to get chewed out and all this, but with Coach Harbaugh, it was just, ‘Hey, man, it’s good you got that out of your system,’” McCarthy said on the College Football Playoff teleconference Wednesday. “‘Let’s roll out.” 

Harbaugh knew what it was like to be in that situation. 

“He’s clearly throwing the ball away, and I can tell you having made a bad play in a football game, it’s like a train going through your head,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, you see red. It’s like a deafening siren.” 

It worked itself out. The interception was overturned by replay. McCarthy passed for 221 yards and three TDs and led No. 1 Michigan to a 27-20 victory against No. 4 Alabama. Afterward, Harbaugh made a declaration about the junior quarterback.

“This is the greatest quarterback in University of Michigan – college football history,” Harbaugh said. “Got a long way to go to get to where Tom Brady eventually got to, which is the GOAT. He lapped the field when it comes to that, but  in a college career there’s been nobody at Michigan better than J.J..” 

That’s a long way from getting chewed out, but when you look at Michigan’s former national championship quarterbacks, all-time statistical leaders, and where McCarthy could fit in at the next level, that statement makes sense. A closer look: 

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What is J.J. McCarthy’s record at Michigan? 

With the victory against Michigan, J.J. McCarthy improved to 26-1 as the starter at Michigan. He led the Wolverines to back-to-back victories against Ohio State – including a 45-23 victory on Nov. 26, 2022, that was the Wolverines’ first win at Ohio Stadium since 2000. 

According to Sports Science Stats from IFS, McCarthy is tied with former Florida State quarterback Jamies Winston for third all time among FBS quarterbacks in winning percentage. Toledo’s Chuck Ealey went 35-0 from 1969-71, and Oklahoma’s Jimmy Harris was 25-0 from 1954-56. 

McCarthy led Michigan to back-to-back Big Ten championships and appearances in the College Football Playoff. Now, McCarthy has a chance to be the Wolverines’ third national championship quarterback in the AP Poll era. 

Who was Michigan’s last national championship QB? 

McCarthy could join exclusive company with a victory against the Huskies. Michigan won two AP national championships in the Poll Era.

Pete Elliott was the quarterback for Michigan in 1948 – a team that finished 9-0 and outscored opponents 252-44 that season under coach Bennie Oosterbaan. Elliott went on to be a head coach at Nebraska, Cal, Illinois and Miami before becoming an executive at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Brian Griese was the starting quarterback for Michigan in 1997 – a team that beat Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl. Griese was named Rose Bowl MVP, and the Wolverines split the national championship with Nebraska that season. Griese played 11 seasons in the NFL, was a college football commentator for ESPN and now is the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers. 

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J.J. McCarthy and Michigan’s all-time passing leaders 

McCarthy has 6,086 passing yards, which ranks sixth all time in Michigan history behind Chad Henne (9,715), John Navarre (9,254), Elvis Grbac (6,460), Devin Gardner (6,336) and Denard Robinson (6,250). Henne, Grbac and Navarre all won Big Ten championships at Michigan. 

McCarthy also is tied with Robinson in career TD passes with 49, which is one more than Michigan legend Rick Leach. The only quarterbacks with more are Henne (87), Navarre (72) and Grbac (71). 

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J.J. McCarthy and Michigan first-round QBs in NFL Draft 

Michigan has had 13 quarterbacks taken in the Common Draft era, and the only first-rounder is a familiar name. 

The Chicago Bears took Harbaugh with the No. 26 pick in the 1987 NFL Draft. Harbaugh played 14 seasons in the NFL and finished with 26,288 yards, 129 TDs and 117 interceptions. 

The last Michigan quarterback to be taken in the NFL Draft was Harbaugh’s first quarterback at Michigan. Jake Rudock was selected with a sixth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. 

A look at those quarterbacks by the round in which they were drafted: 

Michigan QBs in NFL Draft 

YEAR ROUND PLAYER TEAM
1987 1 (26) Jim Harbaugh Chicago Bears
1984 2 (33) Steve Smith* San Diego Chargers
1995 2 (45) Todd Collins Buffalo Bills
2008 2 (57) Chad Henne Miami Dolphins
1998 3 (91) Brian Griese Denver Broncos
1958 5 (54) Jim Van Pelt Washington Redskins
1979 5 (132) Rick Leach Denver Broncos
2016 6 (191) Jake Rudock Detroit Lions
2003 6 (192) Drew Henson Houston Texans
2000 6 (199) Tom Brady New England Patriots
2004 7 (202) John Navarre Arizona Cardinals
1993 8 (219) Elvis Grbac San Francisco 49ers
1974 15 (373) Larry Cipa New Orleans Saints

*Denotes Supplemental Draft pick 

Is J.J. McCarthy Michigan’s greatest QB? 

Harbaugh had a unique description when describing McCarthy as that top Michigan quarterback. 

“I know we talk about it as an amalgamation of quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “He is that guy.”

A look at Michigan’s best quarterbacks since the Bo Schembechler era began would suggest Harbaugh is spot on with that assessment. A look at the quarterbacks that would be in the discussion: 

YEARS QB RECORD VS OSU YARDS TDS INTS
1971-1974 Dennis Franklin 30-2-1 0-2-1 2,285 18 12
1975-78 Rick Leach 38-8-2 3-1 3,799 45 29
1983-86 Jim Harbaugh 24-5-1 2-0 5,214 31 19
1994-97 Brian Griese 17-5 3-0 3,663 27 15
1995-99 Tom Brady 20-5 1-1 4,773 30 17
2004-07 Chad Henne 32-13 0-4 9,715 87 37
2022-present J.J. McCarthy 26-1 2-0 6,086 49 11

Franklin and Leach were the Michigan quarterbacks during the height of the Ten-Year War with Ohio State. Harbaugh is a program icon based on his success as both player and coach and his ties to the past and present. Griese won a national championship, and Brady is the ultimate ambassador for the program based on his NFL success. Henne was a four-year starter and put up great statistics. 

McCarthy brings a little bit of all that to the table based on his success against the Buckeyes, statistics and bright NFL future. A national championship would put him over the top.

Is J.J. McCarthy the next Tom Brady?

Why did Harbaugh make the Brady comparison? 

Brady had a 20-5 record as a starter at Michigan, but like McCarthy he led the Wolverines to a bowl victory against Alabama. Brady led Michigan the Wolverines to a 35-34 victory against the Crimson Tide in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Brady was a backup quarterback on Michigan’s national championship team in 1997. 

Of course, Brady went on to become a seven-time Super Bowl champion in the NFL as part of a career with the Patriots and Buccaneers. McCarthy was asked about that relationship with Brady on Wednesday. 

“He’s just given me a lot of advice on how to watch film throughout the week and what he did and especially in big games,” McCarthy said. “Just little advice like that, just how to handle yourself emotionally and a bunch of other advice about health and well-being and all the tremendous things he’s done with his life in that area.”

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