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SEC East QB breakdowns: Reviewing 2016 and projecting the future

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 East and how things have changed since then. We examined the Western Division teams on Wednesday.

FLORIDA

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-plus. Prior to the season, we bought into the notion that veteran transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby would be enough to smoothly guide the Gators through the season, giving freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask time to figure out what they were doing.

2016 in review: It happened that way ... sorta. Franks and Trask's redshirts remain unburned and the Gators won the division, but the season was not exactly smooth for Del Rio (1,358 passing yards, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions) or Appleby (1,225 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs). Del Rio was off to a decent start before spraining his left knee in Game 3 against North Texas and later injuring his shoulder. He and Appleby wound up starting six games apiece, although the Gators' offense struggled to score down the stretch, notching just five touchdowns in the last five games.

Trending: Holding steady for now. Appleby is a graduate transfer, so he’ll be out of the picture next season. However, Del Rio still has eligibility remaining should he stick it out at Florida and the freshmen should be better prepared for playing time. They will also have a commitment from four-star pocket passer Jake Allen for 2017. Lastly, there is the possibility that the Gators will once again enter the transfer market. We’ll see where things go from here. Right now, the future of the position seems cloudy for the Gators.

GEORGIA

Preseason grade/evaluation: C. We had confidence that things were looking up once hotshot freshman Jacob Eason arrived on campus to challenge Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey, who competed for the job in 2015. It was unclear in August who would claim the starting gig, but Eason grabbed it and held on the rest of the way after Lambert started the opener against North Carolina.

2016 in review: The freshman threw nearly every meaningful pass from Week 2 on and had some outstanding moments. There was the fourth-quarter comeback against Missouri and what should have been the game-winning touchdown pass with 10 seconds left against Tennessee, for starters. There were a couple of ugly performances too, like one might expect from a true freshman. Eason finished the season with 2,266 passing yards, 14 TDs and 8 INTs, although he needs to improve his 55-percent completion rate.

Trending: Up. It was an up-and-down season for the Bulldogs and their quarterback, but Eason's debut season was enough to have confidence that he’ll have a stellar career once rookie head coach Kirby Smart surrounds him with better talent at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Ramsey will still be around next season, as will ESPN 300 prospect Jake Fromm.

KENTUCKY

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-minus. Everything seemed to depend on Drew Barker, with our evaluation stating that "there is some decent talent behind Barker, but Kentucky's success at quarterback this season will come down to his performance." That decent talent included junior college transfer Stephen Johnson, who started eight games after Barker suffered a season-ending back injury.

2016 in review: Barker got off to an unbelievable start in the opener against Southern Miss, passing for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. But he and the Wildcats quickly flamed out in that game and laid another egg the following week against Florida. He suffered the back injury early in the next game against New Mexico State and the job was mostly Johnson's after that. The Wildcats had to adjust their offense to suit their new dual-threat QB's style, developing into one of the SEC's better rushing attacks. Meanwhile, Johnson's passing skills left a lot to be desired, although he threw for a season-high 338 yards and three TDs in the regular-season finale against Louisville.

Trending: Up? What happens this offseason once Barker is healthy? He would be a fourth-year junior next season and Johnson would be a senior. The Wildcats will also have Cincinnati transfer Luke Wright, redshirting freshman Gunnar Hoak and a pair of incoming QB commits, Danny Clark and Walker Wood.

MISSOURI

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-minus. Everyone knew Drew Lock was a talented player, but he was put into a bad situation by having to start as a true freshman in 2015. That was one of several reasons why Missouri had the worst passing offense in the SEC (165.5 yards per game) that season. However, it seemed to be Lock-or-bust as the season opened in Columbia.

2016 in review: Sure, Lock was inconsistent, but he took a huge step forward as a sophomore. He was the SEC's leading passer with 3,399 passing yards, plus 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He and the Tigers are a work in progress overall and are still learning new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel's system, but the offense certainly made strides in Year 1 after a dismal season by nearly every measure in 2015.

Trending: Up. The next step for Lock is improving that 54.6 completion percentage, although his receivers could do him a favor by hanging onto his passes more frequently. The Tigers will have nearly everyone back on offense next season, and that's a great sign after another disappointing season where they fell short of bowl eligibility. Backups Marvin Zanders and Micah Wilson also have eligibility remaining and the Tigers already have a commitment from multi-talented 2017 prospect Reyondous Estes.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-minus. Although there was young talent on board, this looked like a mess in August. That’s pretty much what it was, with freshman Brandon McIlwain and Perry Orth splitting time early in the season and the offense struggling mightily before Coach Will Muschamp made the unorthodox decision to burn freshman Jake Bentley's redshirt before Game 7 against UMass.

2016 in review: Bentley went 4-2 as South Carolina's starter, helping the Gamecocks reach bowl eligibility by passing for 1,030 yards, 6 TDs and 2 INTs. He struggled and injured his knee in the blowout loss to Clemson in the final week of the regular season, although McIlwain didn't fare any better in the second half. Yes, Bentley got to pad his stats against UMass and Western Carolina, but he was also solid in key SEC wins over Tennessee and Missouri. That bodes well for the future.

Trending: Up. Bentley, who completed high school a year early so he could enroll at South Carolina, seems to have claimed the job for now. But let's see what happens next as both freshmen develop. The dual-threat McIlwain (600 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, plus 127 rushing yards and 2 TDs) is a different type of player than his fellow freshman, so it will be interesting to see if the Gamecocks figure out a good way to make use of both players' abilities.

TENNESSEE

Preseason grade/evaluation: B-plus. Dual-threat senior Joshua Dobbs seemed like one of the SEC's few sure things when the season started. Having a veteran starting QB on a team loaded with upperclassmen was one of the top reasons why the Volunteers were such a popular preseason pick to win the SEC East title for the first time since 2007.

2016 in review: Dobbs was the preseason second-team All-SEC QB and ended the fall as the second-team All-SEC QB. The season was a huge flop for the Volunteers, but we can't lay much of that at Dobbs' feet. He remained one of the conference's top run-pass options with 2,655 passing yards, 26 TDs and 12 INTs plus a team-high 713 rushing yards and nine more scores. Without question, there were plenty of times where he frustrated Vols fans, but he also had a hand in some especially memorable moments like the huge second half against Florida and the Hail Mary completion to Jauan Jennings as time expired to beat Georgia.

Trending: Down. This is not to say that backup Quinten Dormady or a freshman such as Jarrett Guarantano is incapable of filling Dobbs' shoes. It's just that it would be unfair to expect either player to step in and immediately perform at or above where Dobbs has been for the last two seasons. Maybe one of them will, though. If one of them develops into a consistent passer, that would be a step up from the Dobbs era.

VANDERBILT

Preseason grade/evaluation: C-minus. There was every reason to be skeptical about the Commodores’ quarterback situation when the season started. Sophomore Kyle Shurmur and junior Wade Freebeck had accomplished next to nothing yet, and it's not like Vanderbilt had been solid at the position under Derek Mason to that point. This might have been reasonably been considered the shakiest QB situation in the SEC, and that would have been saying something.

2016 in review: Vandy didn't do much at quarterback, but perhaps Shurmur exceeded those modest expectations. He started every game and passed for 2,251 yards, 9 TDs and 7 INTs, and closed the season with a flourish. In the season-ending wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee that helped Vandy reach bowl eligibility, he completed 38 of 64 passes for 689 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT.

Trending: Holding steady. Shurmur's performance against Tennessee (416 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was encouraging, but he also had some rough games this season and the depth behind him is not ideal. Let’s see him build on the last two games with a bit more consistency. Behind Shurmur and Freebeck are redshirting freshman Deuce Wallace, junior Shawn Stankavage (who missed the last two seasons with leg injuries) and incoming 2017 pocket passer Jacob Free.