- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Mardy Gilyard can't wait for the Allstate Sugar Bowl to begin, but he's especially looking forward to seeing how it ends.
The Cincinnati star receiver says he's been watching this game in his head for the past 12 years. He rooted for the Florida Gators as a kid in Bunnell, Fla., which is about a two-hour drive from Gainesville. He aspired to either play for or against Florida, his home-state school. It's the latter scenario that fills his dreams and is now his reality.
"It's always a real close game, going back and forth, and right before the end of the game I wake up," he said of his recurring dream. "So I'm anxious to see how it's going to go."
Gilyard dreams like he talks: in vibrant Technicolor. Yet it's doubtful that even he could have imagined how he's arrived at his final college game.
He'll stand as arguably the most electric playmaker on either sideline Friday night in the Superdome. Gilyard has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons and is one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners. His 31.59 yards per return ranks sixth in the FBS, and he's second nationally in all-purpose yards behind Tulsa's Damaris Johnson. While he may lack the pure blinding speed of, say, Florida's Jeff Demps, the 6-foot-1 Gilyard seemingly glides across the field with deceptive quickness and finds another gear when an opening presents itself.
With coach Brian Kelly gone, it's Gilyard -- he of the shell-tipped dreadlocks and bubbly personality -- who's now the most recognizable figure on a team that's ranked third in the country and playing in its second straight BCS game. Like Cincinnati itself, he has risen from obscurity to the top of college football. This is a guy who was living in his car and facing a dubious future less than three years ago.
"Mardy's come a long way," said Bearcats center Chris Jurek, who was Gilyard's roommate when both were freshmen in 2005. "He realized what he wanted and went after it. For him to get his act together and help lead this team the way he has is just phenomenal."
Gilyard said Florida recruited him out of Flagler Palm Coast High School but backed off because "I wasn't too cool in school." Those academic concerns led him to Cincinnati, where he played cornerback and on special teams as a true freshman under Mark Dantonio in 2005.
But he had his scholarship revoked following that season as he once again let his grades slip. Needing to pay for out-of-state tuition, Gilyard worked odd jobs around town and spent several nights sleeping in his 2002 Pontiac Grand Am.
When Kelly came to Cincinnati in December 2006, he watched tape of Gilyard and loved his athleticism. Kelly brought him back into the fold and turned him into a receiver; Gilyard has caught 25 touchdowns and gained nearly 3,000 yards since.
He has also constantly played with an enthusiasm and joy that fits the spirit of the French Quarter. He never forgets how lucky he is to have gotten a second chance.
"It's amazing," he said. "I can remember just watching games from the stands [in 2006], and now I'm the face of the program, basically."
Make that the face and the mouthpiece. Gilyard is one of the most sought-after interviews in the Big East because he's colorful and rarely minces words. Kelly perfectly described his wide receiver earlier this season when he said "there's nothing scripted about him." In fact, the Bearcats were hesitant to let him speak to the media at times this season because they never quite knew what he was going to say.
You almost never get the canned quote from Gilyard. Consider the way he answered a question about matching up with Florida's All-American cornerback Joe Haden.
"He's an extremely talented [junior], and I feel like I'm an extremely talented senior," Gilyard said. "So I feel like I have an edge in experience. I'll take my veteran look at it. I've been studying film for three and a half weeks. I'll continue to study film until they pull me off and say I can't do it no more."
If Gilyard occasionally ruffles feathers with what he says, it's because he shoots straight from the heart.
"My mom always taught me that if you speak it, feel it," he said. "People respect you as a person and respect your opinion when you're truthful and passionate; I really believe that. If something's black, I'm going to call it black."
It's amazing. I can remember just watching games from the stands [in 2006], and now I'm the face of the program, basically.
”-- Cincinnati WR Mardy Gilyard
Gilyard took over the team spokesman role again on the night of Dec. 10. That's when Kelly broke the news after a team banquet that he was leaving for Notre Dame. Gilyard stormed out of the meeting and angrily told reporters that Kelly "went for the money," saying he was "disgusted" with his former coach.
In the days that followed, Gilyard came to regret those words. He's issued an apology to Kelly, though the two haven't actually spoken since that night.
"I have no problem with Coach Kelly," Gilyard says now. "He was the one who looked out for me when nobody else did. He gave me that scholarship when it was taken away. That's why he's the Boss Man, and I thank him for that.
"I was just upset in general because this is the second time I'd gone through a coaching change. Hopefully, my apology will erase any hurt feelings."
He's also the biggest yapper on the team during practices and games. There have been countless times in the past two years when he's told teammates on the sideline that he was about to make a big play. More often than not, he delivered. Case in point: his crucial kickoff return for a touchdown late in the first half at Pittsburgh in the season finale. That sparked a comeback from a 21-point deficit and preserved Cincinnati's 12-0 season and its BCS berth.
"He does talk a lot, and a lot of it is redundant," Jurek said. "But it's the message we want as a football team, and he's usually very positive and supporting the guys.
"He emphasizes that we're not going to lay down and it's going to be a fight. And Mardy has shown through the last five years that if you keep working hard, things will end up pretty well."
Gilyard hopes the ending to his dream game goes similarly well. Either way, he'll play a key role in writing the script.
Brian Bennett covers Big East football for ESPN.com.
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