CFB National Championship: Quarterback Matchup

By Lee Wakefield

The college football season has come down to this, the undefeated Michigan Wolverines versus the undefeated Washington Huskies. The Big Ten champion versus the Pac-12 champion. The number one ranked team in the country versus the number two team. In many ways, it is the National Championship game that should be happening albeit it isn’t without its controversy. What college football season would be complete without some level of controversy? A question for another day perhaps. A question for today though is, which of the quarterbacks will lead their team to victory, J.J. McCarthy or Michael Penix Jr.?

Today we can take a look into the background on each of these two passers, and dive into an evaluation of some of the more important aspects of playing quarterback in the NFL in the modern day.

Embed from Getty Images

J.J. McCarthy


Jonathan James McCarthy was a four-star prospect coming out of IMG Academy after a glittering high school career. He was rated the number 6 QB in the class of 2021. This was a class that will contain a number of future NFL starters, such as Quinn Ewers (#1), Caleb Williams (#2), Drake Maye (#4), and Jalen Milroe of Alabama (#14) whom McCarthy defeated in the Rose Bowl.

McCarthy is in his Junior year with 39 starts under his belt. He stands at 6’3 and according to Michigan, he weighs in at 202 lbs. This leads us to our first talking point – 202 lbs is light for an NFL quarterback. This isn’t Bryce Young all over again, but there isn’t a great sample size of successful NFL quarterbacks below the 210 lb threshold. Only Kyler Murray and Bryce Young have been selected in the first round below 210, both of these guys are a bunch shorter than McCarthy, so his height mitigates a part of the issue, but it’s still food for thought.

One aspect of McCarthy’s background that scouting staff will find interesting is that he was an accomplished high school hockey player. Scouts and evaluators love multi-sport athletes, and hockey isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted, which could soothe some of those size concerns. Hockey requires a lot of agility, ankle flexion, and change of direction skills too, which are all definitely visible when you watch McCarthy’s film.

So in terms of pedigree and the overall package as a person, there’s a lot to like about the greatest quarterback in University of Michigan history.

Accuracy and Ball Placement

McCarthy has displayed great accuracy and ball placement at all three levels of the field throughout his career at Michigan. From highlight-worthy throws to routine, bread-and-butter throws that any NFL-level QB should make, McCarthy’s film has it all. McCarthy can often be seen placing the ball away from defenders, where only his receiver can make a play.

There is also a great deal of evidence that he understands leverage and how to lead his receivers to maximise yards-after-catch opportunities. McCarthy can also put a good amount of velocity on his passes but also mix up his pitches when required and place touch on passes. With this, I would suggest that his overall arm talent is certainly of that of an NFL quarterback. 


McCarthy isn’t a scramble-first quarterback by any means, he is a pocket passer who looks to play within the structure of the offense. However, he is an athlete who can get out of a jam with his legs if and when the time comes. In in modern age of NFL quarterbacking, knowing when to scramble and being successful at it increases teams’ EPA (Expected Points Added) against what the QB would add by making a throw under duress.

McCarthy can be one of those guys who can make throws on the move and can run away from pass rushers to make a few yards with his legs when his team needs to keep the chains moving.

Pocket Presence

There is evidence that McCarthy can navigate the pocket and evade oncoming pass rushers, whilst keeping the offense on time and his throws in rhythm, I am just not sure that it is a major strength of his. This is an inconsistent aspect of his game that he will need to work the kinks out of when he arrives in the NFL. Sometimes he will work away from pressure whilst keeping his eyes downfield and deliver a great ball.

Other times, his poise is lost and pressure gets to him. The ace up his sleeve is the previously mentioned scrambling ability. In the league, he has to continue to improve so the balance tips further in the favour of good decisions. Good pocket movement, having a calm mind and footwork, and choosing the right moments to bail out and make a play on the move.

Embed from Getty Images

Michael Penix Jr.


Left-handed quarterback, Michael Penix Jr. was a three-star prospect out of Tampa Bay, Florida, and he stands at 6’3 and weighs in at 216 lbs. He originally committed to Tennessee before decommitting and playing at the University of Indiana. Between 2018 and 2021 Penix saw action in 21 games of Big Ten football, however, across those four seasons of football, he suffered four season-ending injuries. Penix twice tore an ACL (2018 and 2020) and dislocated his non-throwing shoulder (2019) and his throwing shoulder (2021), an injury history that will have NFL medical teams a lot to think about come the Scouting Combine. Fortunately for Penix, in the past two seasons, since transferring to Washington, injuries haven’t been an issue. This has meant across two seasons, he’s turned out for the Huskies 27 times (all starts) and not missed any game time due to injury.

Like McCarthy, sixth-year Senior, Penix competed in other sports prior to college. Penix played baseball, ran track (200m), and competed in the long jump. 

2023 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Penix will be 24 years old during his first NFL training camp, compared to McCarthy who will be 21 on January 20th.

Accuracy and Ball Placement

Michael Penix Jr. is a pocket passer who uses is whip-like throwing action to dice up defenses with passes that can fit into the tightest of windows. Penix has zip on his passes and drives the ball into the hands of uber-talented receivers such as Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, and much like McCarthy, his ball placement is thoughtful and leads to increased opportunities for extra yards.

Penix also shows excellent anticipation, throwing before receivers are out of their breaks, which is an essential skill when the game gets faster at the next level. 


As mentioned above, Penix is certainly a pocket passer, but he has his moments where he can go into creation-mode and conjure up some magic, however, his accuracy dips on the whole when forced out of the pocket.

When he gets to the NFL, I don’t expect Penix to be seen scrambling for extra yards and making defenders miss like some of the elite QBs around the league. But on the other hand, he won’t be a statue in the pocket either, which nowadays, you can’t really get away with. Does his lack of scrambling and creativity limit his ceiling? Possibly. But given his arm talent to attack all three levels of the field, and in particular, deliver deep passes with exceptional accuracy, he should still be able to generate explosive plays. Explosives are what every NFL offensive playcaller is searching for right now, and a huge key to victory in every game.

Pocket Presence

Being a high-level pocket passer requires high-level pocket movement, especially since Penix finds life outside the pocket and on the move, more of a task. The good news is, there’s plenty of film of Penix sliding and adjusting his position in the pocket to get away from pressure, the throw below from the Sugar Bowl being a noteworthy example of that.

Penix can keep himself clean in the pocket and what accentuates his powers in this area, is his quick release. He has that ability to seemingly literally send the ball on its way, accurately and with power, with a simple flick of the wrist. Lastly, Penix is more than willing to stand and deliver even when a hit is coming his way, and even with his lengthy injury history. Whether this is a positive or a negative in your view, I will let you decide, but it certainly shows a level of mental and physical toughness that an NFL locker room will rally around.


Both players exceptional college quarterbacks for their teams and are more than worthy of battling it out for the National Championship. However, now it is time for me to pass my judgement on which of these two players is going to win their team the game.

I am going to give my flowers to both players in different ways, because they are fairly evenly matched despite holding different strengths in certain aspects of their games.

If I was a General Manager of a QB-needy franchise, which a pick in the middle of the first round, and Drake Maye, Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels were all off the board, I would rather draft J.J. McCarthy. He’s younger, he has (much) less of an injury history and I feel his ability to create out of structure lends itself more to what the modern NFL QB looks like.

However, the question is who is more likely to lead his team to victory, and I lean towards Penix on this one.

Penix has been on such red-hot form for the Huskies over the past couple of seasons, he has the experience advantage and won’t be so easily confused my a Wolverines that will likely come with a specialised gameplan for this game. Penix has the ability to read defenses pre and post-snap, and deliver the ball to all levels of the field in an instant. Washington is going to need big plays, in big moments. Which isn’t to say McCarthy can’t do that, he certainly can, he proved that in the Rose Bowl. I just believe Michael Penix Jr. is more likely to do that in this game.

Caveat; I think Michigan wins the game. But I think that because they’re the better overall team, with a better Head Coach.

Lee Wakefield

NFL, CFB & NFL Draft

Lee Wakefield IS A defensive line enthusiast, Chargers Sufferer, and LONG-TIME writer and podcaster with a number of publications. @Wakefield90 on twitter