Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and Michigan’s Cade McNamara have led their respective teams to 12-win seasons and College Football Playoff berths. Both quarterbacks are one game away from playing for a national championship.
Yet, like any starting quarterback knows, there remains a great deal of conversation about their backups heading into Friday’s national semifinal at the Orange Bowl. Could Georgia’s JT Daniels and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy play a role in this matchup?
That on some level takes away from what those quarterbacks accomplished. Bennett passed for 2,325 yards with 24 TDs and seven interceptions. McNamara passed for 2,470 yards with 15 TDs and four interceptions.
But you’re only as good as your last start. Bennett finished 29 of 48 for 340 yards, three TDs and two interruptions in a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, and that has increased the pressure on the senior quarterback. Bennett was asked about that pressure to lead a national championship run at media availability on Tuesday.
“It’s a bit frustrating sometimes, I guess, but like I said, I don’t have social media, so I don’t wallow in it,” Bennett said. “I don’t sit in it. I don’t think about it. All I’m thinking about is beating Michigan and being the best quarterback I can be for my teammates.”
Former Georgia quarterback Buck Belue, who led the Bulldogs’ last national championship in 1980, is now a radio analyst on Sports Radio 680 in Atlanta. He hears the criticism of Bennett and the calls for Daniels on a daily basis on his show.
“Stetson is better off putting the blinders on to it and focusing on what he can handle,” Belue told SN. “He’s got no control over that 30% or so that I was talking about who do not want him out of there. That’s not going to help him, thinking about that.”
Belue does not believe Daniels, a USC transfer who started in the opener against Clemson, will see much time against Michigan. Daniels returned Monday after clearing COVID-19 protocols, and Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken said the backup, “can come right in and know exactly what we want to do.”
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has played the quarterback situation close to the vest, but Belue expects to see Bennett.
“Just speaking for myself, I don’t expect to see JT Daniels,” Belue said. “It’s pretty obvious that they’re moving forward with Stetson. I haven’t seen any practices since the Alabama game, but it’s pretty obvious Kirby is sticking with Stetson.”
Michigan has found a way to make it work, at least for this season, with both quarterbacks. McNamara won the starting job, but McCarthy, a five-star recruit, made a huge impression with his first TD pass in the opener against Western Michigan. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said he cannot remember that level of hype around a Wolverines quarterback since Chad Henne took the job as a freshman in 2004.
“McCarthy would come in games in September, the student body and the fans were like, ‘Oh, here is our savior,’” Herbstreit said on a conference call Monday.
Yet Herbstreit noticed something else in those moments. McNamara would not go off to the sideline by himself. He would stay engaged on the sideline and help McCarthy out.
“(McNamara) is over there, and he’s the first guy cheering,” Herbstreit said. That says a lot to me about his wiring and how he’s handled that.”
McNamara handled that by leading Michigan to its first Big Ten championship since 2004 and first victory against Ohio State since 2011. McCarthy will be involved in certain packages against Georgia, and his live arm and running ability are attributes that might heighten that QB competition in 2022.
Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, however, has been pleased with the quarterbacks’ relationship in the present.
“I think it’s so important that I must acknowledge, 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. “When you’re going through a situation where you’re playing multiple quarterbacks, that can either make or break your team.”
In this case, Georgia and Michigan seem willing to start — and finish — with McNamara and Bennett. For McNamara, the team chemistry has been a difference-maker, especially in Miami. The future can wait.
“I think as we’re coming up to the last month of our season, we’re trying to make the most out of those moments because obviously this team will never be the same after this,” McNamara said.
For Bennett, it is not about those calling for the next man-up. It is about focusing on winning that next game.
“If you listen to them when they’re telling you how good they are, then you’re going to listen to them when they tell you how bad you are,” Bennett said. “I don’t really care what anybody else says.”