Jachai Polite has a chance to tie or break the Gators' single-season sack record
After a disappointing 4-7 season in 2017, the Florida Gators were able to bounce back in a huge way in 2018. In Dan Mullen's first season as head coach, Florida (9-3) has already improved its win total by five games as the Gators tied for second in the SEC East with a 5-3 record. Ranked 10th in the country, Florida will end its season on Dec. 29 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against No. 7 Michigan.
Before the focus shifts to the bowl game and next season, let's hand out some awards for outstanding performances during the regular season.
Offensive MVP: Feleipe Franks, QB
Sure Franks received his fair share of criticism, but he definitely improved in 2018. Franks threw for 2,284 yards and 23 touchdowns with just six interceptions. That's quite an improvement from his 2017 numbers - 1,438 yards, nine touchdowns and eight picks. Franks clearly benefitted from the coaching change.
Defensive MVP: Jachai Polite, DE
This season, Polite has recorded 11 sacks, which is just two shy of tying Alex Brown's single-season school record of 13. Polite also has been credited with 48 tackles and 18 tackles for a loss. Polite has already had one of the best seasons any defensive player has ever had in a Gators uniform. So he is an easy pick here.
Best Freshman: Dameon Pierce, RB
Florida's running game was a big part of the team's success in 2018. Although Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine were the team's two leading rushers, Pierce also played a significant role. His best game might have been against Colorado State when he ran for 87 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. He enters the bowl game with 425 rushing yards and two scores.
Best Play of the Season: Lucas Krull's Pass to Feleipe Franks to Set Up Game-Winning TD vs. LSU
Down 19-14 in the fourth quarter at home against LSU on Oct. 6, the Gators turned to a little trickery by reversing roles. Instead of catching a pass from Franks, Krull, a 6-foot-6 tight end lofted a perfect, 15-yard throw to Franks used a little bit of trickery as 6-foot-6 tight end Lucas Krull lofted a perfect 15-yard pass to Franks to set up a two-yard touchdown run by Lamical Perine to give Florida a 20-19 lead with less than nine minutes to go in the game. An interception returned for a touchdown provided the final points in the Gators' 27-19 victory.
Best Performance by a Player: Feleipe Franks vs. Florida State
Franks had some standout games this season, but his best might have been against the Seminoles in Tallahassee. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns as Florida rolled past FSU 41-14 in the teams' regular-season finale.
Best Game (Team Performance): Rout of Tennessee
Florida capitalized on six Volunteers turnovers in a 47-21 humbling of Tennessee in Knoxville on Sept. 23. Four of the Vols' giveaways led to 24 points for the Gators. Tennessee also gave up a safety and cost itself a touchdown by fumbling the ball out of the end zone for a touchback.
Defining Moment: Coming From Way Behind to Win at Vanderbilt
On Oct. 13 in Nashville, the Commodores jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter against the Gators. From there, Florida took command, scoring 24 straight points to eventually post a 37-27 victory. The win snapped a 26-game losing streak for the Gators when trailing by 18 or more points.
Biggest Surprise: Florida's Rushing Attack
Sure, the Gators have a talented backfield. But they have been among the best in the nation when it comes to running the ball. Florida is 26th in the nation in rushing offense at 209.5 yards per game. The Gators' season high is a whopping 367 yards (and four touchdowns) on 62 carries (5.9 ypc) in their 35-31 win over South Carolina on Nov. 10.
Biggest Disappointment: Usage of Kadarius Toney
At times, Toney should have had a more significant role in the Gators' offense. He is such a dynamic player and definitely a home-run threat every time he touches the football. But he's touched the ball just 44 times on offense (including a 20-yard TD pass) and six more times on special teams. He's averaging more than 10 yards per opportunity on offense and nearly 24 on kickoff returns.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Martez Ivey, OT
Since he arrived in Gainesville, Ivey has been a staple on the Gators' offensive line. Florida has had problems at times with its line, but Ivey was not one of them. This season, Ivey earned second-team All-SEC recognition.
Player to Watch in 2019: Emory Jones, QB
Although Feleipe Franks was the starter this season, he will be pushed during the offseason by Jones. The true freshman played in three games for the Gators, thereby preserving his redshirt. A dual threat, Jones possesses the skill set Mullen loves in his signal-callers. Jones will have a full offseason to work on his conditioning and improve his grasp of the offense. He could supplant Franks as the starter by next season's opener against Miami.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Draft Decisions
Florida may have to replace a few key members of their defense as some could choose to leave early and declare for the NFL draft. Jachai Polite, a junior, is definitely a possibility as he could wind up being a first-round pick. Fellow defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga and running back Jordan Scarlett are two others who could opt for the draft instead of returning for their senior seasons.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.