Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …

1. The B1G Story

We’re witnessing the unveiling of the next great college football quarterback.

One big game at a time.

“The job is not finished,” JJ McCarthy said. “We’ve got a lot bigger plans in mind.”

There’s only 1 more step to take at Michigan: all the way to the national title. The Wolverines aren’t getting there without McCarthy, their surging sophomore quarterback, taking over in the Playoff.

“He completely changes everything for them,” a Big Ten coach told me. “If (Jim Harbaugh) went with the other guy (Cade McNamara) again, they’re not in the Playoff. Hell, they don’t win the division or the league.”

But here we are, 3 months after Harbaugh made the switch from last year’s starter (McNamara) to this year’s revelation. There’s no other way to look at McCarthy, really.

As an athlete, as a pure thrower, there is no comparison to McCarthy in the Harbaugh era. And frankly, any quarterback in a long, long time at Michigan.

“He’s just got it,” Harbaugh said of McCarthy. “He’s got that it factor.”

This, everyone, is how you win national titles in the quarterback-driven world of college football. You know who else had the “it” factor?

Joe Burrow. Mac Jones. Trevor Lawrence. Deshaun Watson. Tua Tagovailoa.

And while Stetson Bennett isn’t as physically gifted as the aforementioned group, he’s the perfect fit for a Georgia offense that doesn’t ask too much from its quarterback — and he delivers far above what is expected. He has it.

He also has an overpowering defense backing his every move, the foundation of who and what Georgia is. But guess who else does now, too?

That’s right, JJ McCarthy.

The defense, the quarterback, the Playoff run. It’s like nothing we’ve seen from Michigan.

It’s McCarthy’s breakout big game finish: Ohio State, the Big Ten Championship Game, the Playoff semifinal, the national championship game.

The next great quarterback in college football is 2 games away from ringing the bell.

2. The change

It was this big moment last season where eventual national champion Georgia exposed Michigan for what it was: an overwhelmed team playing in its first Playoff, with a quarterback (McNamara) who couldn’t overcome natural limitations.

But it was the second half of the blowout loss to Georgia that set this season in motion. It was that second half where Harbaugh saw the unique player he thought he had at quarterback — and watched McCarthy rise to the moment and not be intimidated despite the environment.

McCarthy threw for 131 yards and 1 TD, and rushed for 24 yards on 4 carries in the second half, but those decent numbers overshadowed what was clearly evident: the arm talent, the athleticism, the dynamic ability.

The “it” factor.

So when this season began, it was clear where Michigan was headed with the most important position on the field. Harbaugh may have said it was a competition — and it may have played out that way in the first 2 games of the season — but if Michigan started anyone other than McCarthy in games that mattered, it would be a step backward.

McNamara, a strong starter in the right system (more on that later), hit his ceiling last season. On the right team, within the right structure, he can win a Big Ten title.

After that, when the heavy lifting begins in the Playoff, things quickly changed for the worse.

It’s not that McNamara didn’t play well for Michigan in 2021 — he absolutely did and was a key factor in the Playoff run — it’s just that he could get Michigan only so far.

McCarthy can get Michigan to the top of the mountain. McCarthy can deal with the athletic, fast Georgia defense and still make plays in the pass and QB run games.

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McCarthy can stress the Georgia defense like McNamara couldn’t — and like no quarterback has this season. Anyone who thinks this season for Michigan wasn’t about finding a way to beat Georgia isn’t paying close enough attention.

Michigan is long past the Ohio State obstacle, and has left it smoldering in the rearview while Buckeyes coach Ryan Day waxes poetically about a rematch “everyone” wants to see.

Everyone wants to see McCarthy vs. the Georgia defense.

3. The Next Great QB, The Epilogue

This is how it works: If you’re going to swing, swing big.

Nothing comes easy — especially when you’ve ascended to the top of the quarterback board.

Watson had to beat Alabama. So did Lawrence. Tagovailoa had to knock down emerging Georgia — despite limited snaps in the regular season, and staring at a second-half deficit.

Burrow had to get out of the SEC West by beating Alabama, then had to win the SEC and beat the 2 quarterbacks ahead of him (Jalen Hurts, Lawrence) in the Playoff. Jones had to beat the Alabama elite quarterback ghosts of the past.

They all did it, rising to the moment and making statements in the biggest games of the season. McCarthy is 2 games into the 4-game run, and he has 7 TDs (1 rush) and 1 INT, and is averaging 10.3 yards per attempt.

In those 2 big wins over Ohio State and Purdue, McCarthy has completions of 75, 69, 45, 40, 33 and 25 yards. The offense is extending in the pass game, making Michigan’s ground and pound run game more lethal.

McCarthy is stressing defenses with accurate throws off schedule, and key 3rd-down conversion runs. He is quickly developing into the elite of the game.

“He was a mustang earlier this year — bucking around and doing things he probably shouldn’t, but could get away with,” another Big Ten coach told me. “He’s getting better every game, but he’s not getting away with those risks now. TCU shouldn’t be a problem, but when Georgia is on the other side? Shoot, they’ll play 2-high (safeties) and rush 4 and say we’re coming. Good luck, brother.”

Big games, big swings for the next great college quarterback.

4. A fit .. or flop?

Once McNamara decided to enter the transfer portal, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that he’d sign with Iowa.

The culture, the system, the fit. McNamara matches perfectly with what Iowa wants to do offensively in its NFL-based scheme.

McNamara gives the Hawkeyes a legitimate Big Ten quarterback with a history of winning big conference games. The problem: What does Iowa give McNamara?

The receiving corps is limited and needs to add experience on the outside and at tight end. The offensive line is average, and certainly not at the level of the historically strong lines in Iowa City.

A bigger problem is the quarterbacks coach and play caller (Brian Ferentz), who was at the center of the one of the worst offenses in Iowa history. QBs Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla not only didn’t grow under Ferentz, they weren’t even serviceable.

McNamara probably knows more about coaching quarterbacks than Ferentz, the former offensive line coach who took on the role of quarterbacks coach in 2022.

There’s no other way around a delicate situation: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz must hire an experienced quarterbacks coach, and allow McNamara to reach his full potential in the Brian Ferentz offense.    

5. The Weekly 5

Five reasons to feel good about Penn State in 2023:

1. QB Drew Allar. Elite arm talent, tough competitor. Think Christian Hackenberg — with more talent around him.   

2. TB Nick Singleton. The game-breaker Penn State has needed for years in the backfield. He’ll be stronger and more adjusted to Big Ten play, in 2023.

3. The recruiting of James Franklin. You win with elite 4- and 5-star players at critical positions: Allar, Singleton, DE Dani Dennis-Sutton, OLB/Edge Abdul Carter, OT Drew Shelton, WR Kaden Saunders — all from the 2022 class.    

4. The gap between Penn State and Ohio State and Michigan closed this season — despite young players in critical positions and the uneven play of QB Sean Clifford.

5. Penn State gets Michigan in Happy Valley.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes the draft prospects of a Big Ten player. This week: Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon.

“A tough, gritty player. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he closes well and knows the position, knows leverage. He’s very good at mirroring receivers. He’s more of a man (coverage) guy in what (Illinois) do, but he’s just as capable in zone. He’s strong Day 2 pick, maybe even the first 5-10 picks of the 2nd round.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing:

Biggest transfer portal loss, or potential loss:

1. Michigan: TE Erick All: Sidelined with back injury much of the season, but a very talented and dynamic player.   

2. Ohio State: Can the Buckeyes keep QB Kyle McCord?

3. Penn State: QB Christian Veilleux. Allar is the future, but there’s little experience behind him.

4. Purdue: G Spencer Holstege: Boilers lost a starting guard to UCLA.

5. Illinois: DT Johnny Newton. Potential NIL deals from home state schools (Florida, FSU, Miami) will come. Will he move?

6. Minnesota: S Michael Dixon. Big hitting safety will be a solid starter wherever he lands.

7. Maryland: TB Roman Hemby. Freshman had a huge season and will no doubt have transfer options.

8. Iowa: WR Arland Bruce IV: Had No. 1 receiver potential. Would’ve been solid option for McNamara.

9. Wisconsin: QB Graham Mertz. Uneven play for 3 seasons but would’ve been solid experience for new staff.

10. Michigan State: WR Germie Bernard. A burner who averaged 18.3 ypc. in limited action.

11. Nebraska: QB Casey Thompson. Does he stay and compete with Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims?

12. Rutgers: LB Austin Dean. Played 4th-most snaps at the position and could’ve developed into a solid starter.

13. Indiana: DE Dasan McCullough. A legit force off the edge, and potential 10-sack player.

14. Northwestern: WR Malik Washington. The best skill position player on the team, he committed to Virginia.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Why is it everyone is overlooking Ohio State? The Michigan loss was a one score game in the 4th quarter you know. — Terry George, Cincinnati.


What concerns me more than anything about Ohio State is the defense — specifically, the way it gives up big plays. We saw it against Michigan (and others), and it will be a problem against Georgia.

The Bulldogs have 28 plays of 30-plus yards this season, including 8 of 50-plus yards. Georgia can hit defenses from anywhere on the field: tight end (Brock Bowers), wide receiver (Ladd McConkey, Kearis Jackson), running back (Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton).

Unless Ohio State can keep pressure on the Georgia defense and win a shootout, the Buckeyes’ defense — top 10 much of the season against an inferior schedule — will have to play its best game of the season against a balanced, dangerous offense full of matchup problems.

All while dealing with the best defense in college football.    

9. Numbers

6.9. There’s no bigger indicator of the regression of Michigan State QB Payton Thorne than average yards per attempt. Because the Spartans didn’t have the dangerous run game of 2021 with All-American Kenneth Walker III, Thorne’s average per attempt fell from 8.3 in 2021 to 6.9 in 2022.

Movement in yards per attempt is measured in tenths. In other words, a drop of more than 1 percentage point is significant. The ball didn’t get down the field for Michigan State, and Thorne’s season regressed.

Thorne had a TD/INT ratio of 27/10 in 2021, and dropped to 17/11 in 2022. His completion percentage dropped 2 points to 60.4 percent, treading close to less than 60 percent.

10. Quote to note

Illinois safety Sidney Brown, on opting out of the ReliaQuest Bowl: “I’m a captain of this team. It’s not easy. I love these guys. I’ve poured it out here for 5 years. I’m going to tear up because I love this place. Where it’s taken me over the past 5 years, I’ll forever be in debt for what they’ve given me over time.”