At this time last year, the answer to who would be the next starting quarterback at Auburn was the worst-kept secret this side of the Mississippi.
My, how things have changed on the Plains.
After a 7-6 regular season that featured a midseason quarterback change and a late-season injury that caused another move, Auburn will head into 2016 with a major question mark at the most important position on the depth chart.
Big quarterback battles with multiple names have been nothing new for Auburn in the time Gus Malzahn has been on the coaching staff. But this one has the potential to be the most wide-open one yet.
As the focus for the Tigers turns toward next season and spring camp, here's a look at the names and numbers of Auburn's next starting quarterback.
The returning names
Jeremy Johnson and Sean White split time as Auburn's starting quarterback this season, and Malzahn's offense never was able to hit its stride throughout the changes.
Johnson, a rising senior, was the clear-cut favorite to inherit the job last offseason. He did nothing but excel as a passer during his spot duty behind Nick Marshall in 2013 and 2014, and the former Mr. Football for the state of Alabama had Heisman hype behind him heading into the fall.
However, Johnson threw six interceptions in his first three starts of 2015. Auburn needed to come from behind to defeat FCS program Jacksonville State, and the offense's dreadful start against LSU led to a 45-21 loss.
After redshirt freshman Sean White took over the starting job ahead of the Mississippi State game, the results were mixed. He did a better job protecting the football and sparking some solid drives, but an injury hurt his production against Ole Miss.
Johnson took back over and led Auburn to a surprising road win against Texas A&M but was underwhelming the rest of the way. To make matters even more complicated, a healthy White struggled with two picks in his Birmingham Bowl start against Memphis, while Johnson scored three touchdowns in special packages.
After the game, Johnson said he would return to Auburn in 2016 and try to win his job back.
"We've just got to work hard in the off season and keep sticking together and handle adversity the way we did this year," Johnson said, per Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "I feel like we were going to have a great season next year."
A return to Johnson is an intriguing prospect. He looked better in the pocket after his benching, and while neither would be considered "good," the former starter finished with better 2015 numbers than White:
|Jeremy Johnson vs. Sean White in 2015|
|Jeremy Johnson||95-157 (60.5%)||1,054||10||7||129.00||137 yards, 6 TD|
|Sean White||83-143 (58.0%)||1,167||1||4||123.11||35 yards, 0 TD|
With another offseason to prepare without as much pressure on him to be "the next Cam Newton," Johnson could bounce back in 2016. He will be the most experienced quarterback on campus and has the rushing ability White doesn't have.
White was a more stable option when healthy in 2015, but if Malzahn elects to go back to the run-heavy ways from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he would be the least likely candidate to start. If the rising sophomore can return to full health, he has the pocket-passing advantage.
A third name, freshman Tyler Queen, is more of a long-shot choice. He sat out the 2015 season after undergoing elbow surgery, but he had the No. 3 spot behind Johnson and White heading into the fall.
The incoming talent
Franklin has signed his letter of intent with Auburn and is expected to arrive on campus on Jan. 10, per Brandon Marcello of AL.com.
The positives for Franklin are obvious. The former Florida State quarterback has plenty of speed and athleticism, and the Seminoles used him to mimic Nick Marshall in practices for the BCS National Championship Game in the 2013 season.
It's no secret that Malzahn's offense has been more effective over the last few years with a strong running threat, something that it currently doesn't have with Johnson or White. Going the JUCO route and picking up a dual-threat quarterback—Marshall and a guy named Cam Newton—has obviously worked well for Malzahn in the past.
However, while Marshall and Newton racked up ridiculous stats in junior college, Franklin split time with others for East Mississippi Community College this past season.
|Comparing JUCO Stats of Auburn QB Signees|
|Name (Year)||Passing Yards||Passing TDs||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs|
|Cam Newton (2009)||2,833||22||655||16|
|Nick Marshall (2012)||3,142||18||1,095||19|
|John Franklin III (2015)||733||7||451||9|
|247Sports and AuburnTigers.com|
EMCC coach Buddy Stephens told Marcello that Franklin has the ability to play quarterback at the SEC level, even though he wasn't the full-time starter for him.
"I've had Bo Wallace, I've had Randall Mackey and I've had Chad Kelly," Stephens said. "He can play. There is no doubt in my mind he can play in the SEC. His arm strength is very live, his thing is he just needs to work on his mechanics."
Barrett also needs to work on his arm, but his rushing ability makes him a strong prospect for the future of Malzahn's offense.
While the Orlando, Florida, native got the start in his hometown in last weekend's Under Armour All-America Game, he struggled throwing the ball and took major hits from some of the nation's top defensive recruits.
SB Nation Recruiting @SBNRecruiting
Levonta Taylor breaks up a pass from Auburn QB commit Woody Barrett. Extremely late on the throw. Throwing isn't really his skill yet.2016-1-2 17:14:23
One rough outing aside, Barrett's skills make him what Bleacher Report recruiting analyst Damon Sayles called "a perfect fit" for Malzahn's no-huddle offense last summer:
At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Barrett epitomizes the phrase "dual-threat quarterback." The West Orange High School product moves very well in the pocket, and when he's flushed out, he's a problem for defenders because of his power and speed. Barrett throws an accurate mid-range and deep ball, and he throws with a lot of zip.
Barrett's acceleration could make him an intriguing player in third-down situations. He's run the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds, per Bartow, and that speed, along with his field vision, allows him to extend plays. His strength will help him pick up first downs in short-yardage situations, as well.
Barrett is one for the future at Auburn, but he could play a role in this year's quarterback race whenever he lands on campus.
With the way Auburn went after running quarterbacks in recruiting while the 2015 offense struggled, dual-threats should have the upper hand in 2016.
The wild cards
Counting Queen, Auburn should have five different quarterbacks ready to compete in 2016. But that might not be all for the Tigers.
According to Taylor Hamm of 247Sports, Auburn is interested in Oklahoma graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight, along with fellow SEC West schools Texas A&M and LSU.
The Aggies are said to be the front-runners, as they have lost both of their former 5-star quarterbacks to transfer.
Auburn's reported interest in Knight is somewhat surprising. Knight lost the Sooners' starting quarterback job to Baker Mayfield earlier this season, and he threw for 2,300 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as the starter in 2014.
While Knight is known as a pro-style quarterback, he rushed for 339 yards and five touchdowns in 2014 and 445 yards and two touchdowns as a reserve in 2013.
Even if Auburn doesn't land Knight, the Tigers could take another spin on the graduate transfer quarterback carousel this offseason as the list continues to grow. (Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen has been blocked from transferring to another SEC school.)
Auburn's quarterback room will already be crowded if no one decides to transfer away from the Plains, but if the reports on Knight are true, don't count out a surprise transfer for Malzahn and his staff.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.