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SEC West QB breakdowns: Reviewing 2016 and projecting the future

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Not staying complacent is key to Alabama's success (1:57)

Nick Saban and Alabama cruised to an SEC title and are focused on back-to-back national championships. (1:57)

Although quarterback uncertainty reigned in the SEC at the beginning of the season, things are looking better now at most of the conference's schools.

Today we'll take a look back at the preseason evaluations we made for each quarterback situation in the SEC West and how things have changed since then. On Thursday we'll examine the teams from the East.

ALABAMA

Preseason grade/evaluation: B-minus. The Crimson Tide entered the season with considerable uncertainty at the position, with Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett and freshman Jalen Hurts among the primary contenders for the job. The talent seemed to be there, but the group had limited on-field experience and ranked among the Tide's biggest question marks before the opener against USC.

2016 in review: Barnett started the opener, but it quickly became clear that Hurts was the man for the job. In fact, the composed youngster exceeded all reasonable expectations for a first-year player, passing for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushing for 841 and another 12 scores. He might have turned the ball over a tad too much, but the freshman earned Heisman Trophy buzz because of the way he skillfully managed the Tide's explosive offense.

Trending: Way up. Hurts has at least two seasons left at Alabama, which has to put a giant smile on even Nick Saban's face. The concern for Saban right now is depth behind his freshman superstar. Barnett opted to transfer early in the season and Bateman will reportedly do the same. However, the Tide already has two quarterbacks committed for 2017, including ESPN's top-rated dual-threat quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

ARKANSAS

Preseason grade/evaluation: C. After losing veteran starter Brandon Allen, the Razorbacks entered the season with all of eight career appearances and 19 pass attempts between five quarterback contenders. We knew Austin Allen was taking over from his older brother, but there wasn't much to go on from an experience standpoint.

2016 in review: It was difficult to imagine Austin Allen immediately playing as well as his brother -- Brandon had the nation's second best Total Quarterback Rating (88.0) in 2015, after all -- but he came close. The tough-as-nails junior delivered a solid debut season, passing for 3,152 yards, 23 TDs and 12 interceptions.

Trending: Up. The Hogs have Allen for another season, although the logjam behind him has dissipated. Rafe Peavey announced in August that he would transfer and the news recently broke that redshirt freshman Ricky Town will also depart. That leaves Allen, Ty Storey, Cole Kelley and incoming freshman Daulton Hyatt, the No. 150 overall prospect on the ESPN 300, who plans to enroll at Arkansas in a few weeks.

AUBURN

Preseason grade/evaluation: C. The Tigers came into the season with decent experience, but not much of it had been positive. Jeremy Johnson imploded in 2015 after entering the fall with major hype and Sean White had been decent at times. Lingering on the edge of the preseason battle was speedy junior college transfer John Franklin III, whom many Auburn fans expected to wrestle the job away from the returning QBs.

2016 in review: Franklin never made a serious push for the job and Johnson nearly disappeared from view. That left White, who was building toward an outstanding sophomore season before a shoulder injury forced him to miss most of November. The snaps he did play in the final month -- namely a dud of a performance against Georgia -- were far from the standard he had set earlier in the season. Overall, White completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,644 yards, 9 TDs and 3 INTs.

Trending: Up. The Tigers came into the season without a quarterback. Now they have one. Depth is a question since Johnson is a senior, and we'll see whether Franklin sticks around or goes the graduate transfer route. But with White, freshman Woody Barrett -- and maybe even Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham? -- on the Plains, the Tigers should be OK at QB moving forward.

LSU

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-plus. We expected inconsistent returning starter Brandon Harris to take a step forward this fall, and the depth chart behind him looked solid with Purdue transfer Danny Etling leading the trio behind Harris. Remember, Harris was the third-team quarterback on the media's preseason All-SEC team, largely because of his status as one of the league's few veteran starters.

2016 in review: Additional subpar QB play cost Harris the starting gig by the fifth quarter of the season and Etling held onto the job from that point. Perhaps Etling was not the most explosive player, but he generally offered the steady hand that the Tigers' offense needed. He completed 60 percent of his passes and threw for 1,906 yards, 9 TDs and 4 INTs.

Trending: Hmmm. Let's see what happens once Ed Orgeron names his new offensive coordinator. Will Orgeron be able to lure Alabama's Lane Kiffin to Baton Rouge? Whoever he hires, Orgeron has already said he wants to run a spread offense with a dual-threat quarterback. That's not exactly Etling's skill set, although he has another year of eligibility remaining. Will Harris stick around? And what about reserves Justin McMillan and Lindsey Scott? The Tigers have commitments from a pair of ESPN 300 signal-callers, dual-threat Lowell Narcisse and pocket passer Myles Brennan, but it's hard to predict how anyone fits what LSU will do in 2017 until the Tigers name a new OC.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-minus. Whoever won out in the Bulldogs' four-man quarterback race, he would surely fall short in comparison to departed starter Dak Prescott. Right? That was our assumption in August as Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano -- a group with one combined start -- battled for the job.

2016 in review: Although he split time with Williams early in the season, Fitzgerald wound up having an excellent debut season as a starter. He rushed for more than 100 yards seven times -- including a school-record 258 against Ole Miss -- ranked third in the SEC with 1,243 rushing yards and tied for the league lead with 14 rushing TDs. Once again, Dan Mullen reminded everyone that he knows how to coach up the QB position.

Trending: Up. Staley's gone, but the other guys are still around. Fitzgerald is a redshirt sophomore and Tiano a redshirt freshman, so the depth chart should be fine for a while. Maybe they're not Prescott, arguably the best player in school history, but it seems like his old position is in capable hands with his successors.

OLE MISS

Preseason grade/evaluation: A. Ole Miss was the rare SEC program that had a returning star at quarterback in senior Chad Kelly. And not only did the Rebels have a returning veteran who posted unreal numbers as a junior, they also had one of the nation's top QB prospects behind him in freshman Shea Patterson. Not a bad situation at all.

2016 in review: Kelly wasn't exactly on pace to match his junior season statistically, and Ole Miss was well off its 2015 pace as a team, by the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-November. That said, Kelly still ranked among the SEC's top passers -- averaging 306.4 passing ypg, plus 19 TDs and 8 INTs -- when he went down. Patterson burned his redshirt to play the final three games, but struggled at the end after a dynamite debut win against Texas A&M where he passed for 338 yards and rushed for 64.

Trending: Down … for now. The ultra-talented Patterson looked like Johnny Manziel in brief November spurts, but it will take time for him to consistently perform at a level that rivals his All-SEC predecessor. Kelly had one of the best seasons by a quarterback in SEC history in 2015. Guys like that don't come along often. The depth chart behind Patterson is fairly shallow, too.

TEXAS A&M

Preseason grade/evaluation: B-minus. We expected Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight to make a smooth transition to the SEC, but had concerns about the depth chart behind him. That turned out to be a valid concern since the Aggies dropped three of their last four games once he injured his shoulder against Mississippi State.

2016 in review: Knight proved to be the veteran leader the Aggies' offense needed at quarterback -- and his on-field performance (2,122 passing yards in 10 games, 16 TDs, 6 INTs, 594 rushing yards, 10 TDs) wasn't too shabby either. With Knight triggering the zone-read rushing game, A&M raced out to a 6-0 start and was ranked in the top four in the first College Football Playoff rankings before bottoming out in November.

Trending: Down. Backup Jake Hubenak will be a senior next year, but he'll have competition for the starting job -- likely from Kellen Mond, ESPN's No. 58 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, Nick Starkel and maybe even from another transferring QB. Time will tell on that front. Hubenak (884 passing yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) has been OK in limited starting work, but will need to make considerable progress for the offense to keep clicking should he start for A&M in 2017.