Michigan won handily, but Cade McNamara may have already lost. That’s the harsh reality of Jim Harbaugh’s fairly novel in-season quarterback competition.

Based on the rules set up for the contest by Harbaugh, McNamara was going to be the leader in the clubhouse after Michigan dispatched Colorado State in its season-opener. But it’s a shaky lead, to say the least. The odds are now clearly with JJ McCarthy, the guy who has never started a college game yet.

Saturday’s game — which did in fact result in an easy, 51-7 victory for the No. 8 Wolverines — served as an afterthought to the only drama that was going to play out at the Big House.

How would Cade do? How high, exactly, would the bar be set in the competition for the starting quarterback job at one of the Big Ten’s most storied programs? What would 2021 5-star recruit JJ McCarthy have to top when he gets the starting nod for the Wolverines’ Week 2 game against Hawaii. That game gets a primetime audience, kicking off a 8 ET next Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Of course, the criteria for winning this contest exists almost exclusively in Harbaugh’s head, so neither guy knows exactly where he’s aiming. Winning these home games against unranked opponents seems a given, as does the fact that Michigan could do so while running the ball on every play if it wanted.

All that said, McNamara didn’t start well in his 16th start for the program. He misfired badly on his first 2 throws as the team’s first possession ended in a 3-and-out. Over the next 4 drives, the Wolverines settled for field goals twice and punted once. A 61-yard strike to Roman Wilson highlighted an otherwise dull first half for McNamara. The 22-year-old from Reno, Nevada, was 7-of-15 at the break for 128 yards, the big-play TD one of his few highlights.

He left the game early in the second half after throwing 3 more passes, completing 2 of them for 8 yards. The final numbers: 9-of-18, 136 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 sack for 9 yards lost.

Not great, but he didn’t make any mistakes and had his team comfortably ahead, 30-0, when he checked out. He was stewarding his team to victory, as he did in 12 of 14 games a year ago. He has an impressive resume so far, but some segment of UM fans (and maybe Harbaugh, too?) think the 6-1, 206-pounder has reached his peak. He did nothing Saturday to change that perception.

Getting to the Playoff for the first time was cool, but next time the faithful would like to win a game there.

That’s where the 6-3, 196-pound McCarthy comes in. It’s very possible — probable, really — that McCarthy offers superior arm talent and running skills. He’ll get his chance next week, when he’ll make his first start and 13th appearance for Harbaugh’s offense.

And he got an early start on making his case, replacing McNamara in the third quarter and immediately running 20 yards for a touchdown. On the next drive, he ran twice for 30 yards and went 3-for-3 passing for 15 yards as UM scored to extend its lead to 44-0.

He finished 4-for-4 or 30 yards, with 50 yards rushing, before giving way to third-stringer Alan Bowman — who might want in on the QB contest after going 5-of-6 for 40 yards.

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The running game did just fine replacing Hassan Haskins, as Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards both averaged better than 5 yards per carry. Buoyed by McCarthy’s big-gainers, UM racked up 234 rushing yards on 40 carries, nearly 6 yards a pop. Corum and Edwards both had touchdowns, as the Wolverines scored 4 of their 5 offensive TDs on the ground.

The defense, replacing edge-rushing stars Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, blanked the Rams until the fourth quarter and held them to 219 total yards.