KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee went into Saturday's game with Mississippi State trying to avert their worst league start since Phillip Fulmer took the reins 17 years ago despite returning a large percentage of starters from a team that was one fourth quarter turnover away from the SEC championship last season.
The must-win game was played amid rampant rumors of his imminent demise as head coach that was made even more credible by the availability of plenty of empty seats throughout Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
As we are all aware, empty seats, representing potentially millions of dollars in revenue in the SEC, is death waiting to happen for a head coach.
The Vols broke open a close game in the fourth quarter when sophomore defensive back Eric Berry ignited his team and energized what had been a lethargic crowd when he caught a tipped pass from Bulldog quarterback Tyson Lee and returned the ball 72 yards for a touchdown.
The return gives Berry 397 interception return yards for his career, which is the most career interception return yards in SEC history -- the previous best was 379 set some 60 years ago by Bobby Wilson of Mississippi.
Next up for Berry will be Florida State's Terrell Buckley and his NCAA career record 501 return yards. He may yet break that record this season.
"I don't know if I've ever seen anybody like Eric Berry," Fulmer said. "It's amazing what he does when he has a football in his hands and the spirit that he brings to the team."
The typically modest Berry diverted the attention away from his role in the game-changing play and heaped praise on his teammates after the game.
"On the interception I was headed to the ball and I think Ellix (Wilson) tipped it and it went downhill from there," Berry said. "As far as breaking the record, I feel like it's really a team effort as well as an individual effort. We're getting great pressure up front week-in and week-out and doing great blocking down the field after the interception."
As I sat and listened to Fulmer describe Berry's phenomenal ball skills I couldn't help but reflect on the reports and quotes coming out of the Vol camp before the season began stating that the Fairburn, Ga., native would be used on offense in an effort to utilize his talent and add some high octane fuel to what has been a mostly impotent attack.
Inexplicably, we are seven games into the season and the 5-foot-11, 195-pound speedster has yet to line up on offense.
Does the risk of playing Berry on both sides of the ball and risking injury or fatigue as the season wears on outweigh the positives of putting the ball in his hands 8-10 times a game?
There is no denying Berry's value to the defense. His pick on Saturday was the fifth of the season and 10th of his career. He is a future top five pick in the NFL draft and a potential Hall of Famer.
Remembering that he is only halfway through his second season, he is arguably the best defensive player in UT history, ranked right there with Reggie White and Al Wilson.
It is not that Berry is unaccustomed to playing offense. As quarterback at Creekside High School, he ran for more than 1,500 yards and threw for over 1,000 yards his senior year alone.
Imagine the possibilities with he and fellow speedster Gerald Jones lined up together in the G-Gun formation.
The Volunteers (3-4, 1-3 SEC) are struggling for an offensive identity. That does not bode well with highly-ranked nemesis Alabama coming to Knoxville this weekend.
Fulmer is taking a lot of heat for a program that has had seemingly diminishing results over the past several seasons despite a career record of 150-49. A .754 winning percentage would be good enough for most schools right?
Not in Tennessee.
Put him in, coach. He is ready to play. He just may save your job and your legacy.
--Jimmy Jones is a Times-Gazette sports writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.