To the winner of the Championship Game goes the Rose Bowl.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The pre-season picks for Pac-12 supremacy were Oregon and USC.
USC was ranked No. 1 in the polls. They were finally off probation and bowl eligible.
They also had three talented pro prospects on offense with QB Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
Meanwhile Coach Chip Kelly at Oregon found an extremely talented freshman QB Marcus Mariota. Add to that Heisman hopeful running back Kenjon Barner and speedster De’Anthony Thomas and it appeared the Duck juggernaut would continue on its merry way in 2012.
The only question seemed to be the location for the Pac-12 Championship game. Would it be in Eugene like last year, or in the LA Coliseum?
So how do you explain the fact that this Friday's Championship game will be played in Palo Alto where Stanford will host UCLA.
What happened? What went wrong? How did the Cardinal and the Bruins get there?
Let’s take a look. And while we’re at it, lets predict where the top Pac-12 teams will end up in their bowl games.
Stanford sneaks by San Jose St. in 2012 season opener.
Stanford's first two games were victories against patsies San Jose State and Duke. The San Jose State game was close while the Duke game was a blowout.
Stanford had to learn what life would be like without three-year starter and All-American QB Andrew Luck. Replacement Josh Nunes was OK, but a huge step down from Luck.
The rest of the team played well, notably the defense and the running game. No one knew at the time that these were meaningful wins. Both of Stanford's opponents turned out to be far better than they had been in years and years. Neither was a patsy.
San Jose State finished the year 10-2, ranked 25th in this week’s BCS poll. Their only losses were on opening day to Stanford, and midseason to WAC champ Utah State, which also happens to be 10-2 while ranked 24th in the BCS poll.
Duke is 6-6 and will play in its first bowl game since 1994.
While Stanford did not necessarily impress in the early games, it turns out they were making a statement. The team was pretty good.
UCLA beats Nebraska in Sept. at the Rose Bowl, hoping to do the same in Jan.
UCLA was coming off a mediocre season. The Bruins backed into last year's inaugural Pac-12 Championship game against Oregon only because USC was ineligible. They finished the season last year with consecutive losses to Oregon and Illinois, finishing 6-8.
This year there were a lot of new faces, including Coach Jim Mora and Redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley. Expectations were modest.
The Bruins reeled off three straight victories, including one over Nebraska, before losing to Oregon State. UCLA lost again two weeks later, leaving their record at 4-2. They did not appear in the top 25 rankings, and were not considered contenders for the Pac-12 South title.
It was too soon to know that Oregon State (8-3) would end up highly ranked in the national polls.
No one knew then that Nebraska would be vying at end season end for the Big Ten Championship, a Rose Bowl berth, and a possible rematch with UCLA.
UCLA was a better team than people realized early in the season.
Stepfan Taylor's controversial no call when it looked like Stanford scored in OT with Notre Dame.
Both teams had mid-season losses in games they should have won.
In late September, Stanford traveled to Washington where they were upset 17-13. It was Stanford’s first loss, and left people wondering how good the team really was.
One week later UCLA traveled to Berkeley where they got blown out by lowly Cal 43-17. Cal ended the season 3-9. But their victory over UCLA left people at the time assuming UCLA was a second tier team.
One week after that Stanford traveled to South Bend. That’s where they lost their second game in the controversial overtime loss to Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 7 at the time. It was a hard luck loss, and again left fans wondering just how good Stanford really was.
UCLA managed to skip the Ducks this year.
The new Pac-12 format allows schedule changes each year.
In the old days, the Pac-10 schools all played each other every year.
Now that there is a Pac-12 North and a Pac-12 South, that doesn't work. Each year every team plays all the other teams in their division, but skips two teams in the other division.
No doubt, UCLA got the better of this arrangement in 2012.
Stanford did not play Pac-12 Arizona State (7-5) or Utah (5-7).
UCLA, on the other hand, did not play Washington (7-5) or Oregon (11-1). The Bruins were lucky to miss the Ducks this time around.
UCLA dominated USC in their late season rivalry game.
Good teams are supposed to get better as the season moves along. Both UCLA and Stanford did just that.
Before their head-to-head matchup last week, each ran off five consecutive victories.
UCLA beat Utah, both Arizona schools and Washington State before their huge rivalry game against USC. They handily disposed of the cross-town rivals by a final score of 38-28.
By this time, UCLA had convinced themselves and the rest of the football world that they were good, and worthy of a Rose Bowl bid.
Stanford shocked the football world with OT upset of No. 1 Oregon.
Stanford had a tougher road than UCLA. They also amassed a five-game winning streak before their matchup with UCLA.
The Cardinal beat three teams with losing records in Cal, Washington State and Colorado. Then came two tough games against No. 11 Oregon State and No. 1 Oregon.
Those last two victories made believers out of any skeptics. Clearly Stanford had the ability to beat anyone, and also felt worthy of a Rose Bowl bid.
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan led Stanford to victory over UCLA in their first meeting this year.
Finally the last game of the regular season pitted the two unlikely teams against each other. UCLA had already won the Pac-12 South, and knew it would play in the Pac-12 Championship game. But they didn't know whom they would be playing.
There were several scenarios. The most likely would be a game in Eugene against Oregon if they beat Stanford, or a rematch in Palo Alto if they lost.
Some believed UCLA would have been happier with a loss than a win, thereby allowing a championship game against Stanford rather than Oregon. Those folks got their wish.
Both teams came to play, but Stanford played a little better. They won the game played in the Rose Bowl by a score of 35-17, setting up this week's rematch in Palo Alto. The rematch should be another good game.
Stanford should win Game 2 against UCLA.
The truth of the matter is that all four teams discussed here will do well.
USC ended the season with five losses, but will certainly get a bowl bid.
Oregon ended the season with just one loss, and will get a prestigious bowl bid.
The winner of the UCLA–Stanford game will go to the Rose Bowl, while the loser will go to a good bowl game.
Even Oregon State, with three losses, will get a decent bowl bid.
In short, this is a good year for the Pac-12.
Rose Bowl, the grandaddy of them all.
Holiday Bowl UCLA Dec. 27
Alamo Bowl Oregon St. Dec. 29
Rose Bowl Stanford Jan. 1
Fiesta Bowl Oregon Jan. 3