TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama is 5-0, coming off wins over Arkansas and Florida and looking like a juggernaut in the making. Mark that November game with No. 1 LSU down as a national championship elimination contest.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide were in a similar position this time last season and got pushed around by South Carolina in Game 6. Two more games slipped away in the fourth quarter, creating painful memories that might keep Alabama players from getting too carried away this year.
"We let it get away from us last year," tailback Trent Richardson said. "We were a few plays from being in the national championship game. We sat down as a team and said it can't be like that next year."
All that might keep the Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) a little more grounded going into Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt, even though the Commodores (3-1, 1-1) would seem unlikely candidates to pull off an upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama has routed No. 10 Arkansas and No. 17 Florida by a combined score of 76-24 the past two Saturdays. The talk already has started among fans and pundits of the Nov. 5 showdown with No. 1 LSU.
All that stands in the Tide's way are games against Vandy, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Then again, Alabama was coming off an imposing 31-6 rout of Florida last season before the defense looked downright vulnerable at South Carolina, which had never beaten a No. 1 team.
Why is linebacker Nico Johnson not worrying about the Tide losing focus this year?
"Because of what happened last year," Johnson said. "We weren't able to finish last year, and we got beat by South Carolina around this time last year. We just want to finish this year. We're hungry. We've got a chip on our shoulder.
"It was terrible. That was my first loss being at Alabama. It was a bad feeling."
Alabama went into the fourth quarter of the losses to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn with chances to win. That's when the Tide have been at their best this season.
Alabama has outscored opponents 45-8 in the fourth periods and outrushed them to the tune of 639-59 yards. The only last-quarter points the Tide have given up came on a late touchdown and two-point conversion in a 27-11 win at Penn State.
"That's the main thing," noseguard Josh Chapman said. "Last year we gave up in the fourth quarter. We didn't finish last year."
Finishing hasn't been the problem; starting has.
The Tide have allowed 20 points in the first quarter and 22 the rest of the way. Florida scored with a 60-yard bomb on its first play.
"We really haven't played worth a damn in the first quarter. That's one way to look at it," coach Nick Saban said. "That was certainly the case in this last game. They didn't change players and they didn't really change what they were doing.
"The one part of that would be we need to play better in the beginning, and the other part is we play better as it goes because we make good adjustments, which we do."
Alabama held an offense that came in leading the SEC in rushing to 15 yards on the ground even with linebacker C.J. Mosley, one of the team's top players, out with an elbow injury. Saban said his status is uncertain for the Vanderbilt game.
Richardson, meanwhile, ran for 181 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and gained another 26 yards on three rushes to set up Eddie Lacy's 20-yard score a few minutes later.
"It's hard for me to imagine that anybody had a better game than Trent Richardson had anywhere in the country, against good competition," Saban said.
Left tackle Barrett Jones said he could sense the energy sapping from Florida by the fourth quarter, when Alabama ran for 108 yards before running out the clock on the final drive.
"I think that's something we want our identity to be around here, is to be able to run the ball like that in the fourth quarter when teams know we're going to run the ball, and still do it effectively," Jones said. "That's probably the best feeling as an offensive lineman -- going out there at the end of the games and being able to grind them."