2012 has been a year for Stanford to move out of the shadows. How will anyone ever replace Andrew Luck? Is David Shaw a coach up to Jim Harbaugh’s standards?

Those two questions loomed large over Stanford and would have continued had the Cardinal not just won the Pac-12 Championship. With the 27-24 victory against UCLA, Stanford earned sweet, sweet validation as Pac-12 elite rather than a one-hit wonder.

In reality, Shaw and quarterback Kevin Hogan -- with a sufficient amount of help from Josh Nunes the first half of the season—accomplished something Luck and Harbaugh failed to do together: reach the Rose Bowl.

“We talked about how this wasn’t going to be easy,” Shaw said. “We talked about how we were going to get Notre Dame’s best—excuse me, I mean UCLA’s best shot.”

Perhaps that gave a glimpse into Shaw’s mind, daydreaming about what could be for his team. Although the Cardinal won’t get a rematch with the Fighting Irish for the BCS National Championship, the view for Stanford is all roses.

Stanford’s young quarterback, Hogan, now has five starts under his belt, all wins, coming against Colorado, Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA twice.

Hogan earned MVP honors in the Pac-12 title game, throwing for 155 yards and a touchdown while also running for 47 yards and a touchdown.

“Kevin didn’t play perfect again [Friday],” Shaw said, “but, boy, when we need the play, he makes it.”

When Shaw talks about “the play,” it’s assumed he’s referring to the type of play that came in the fourth quarter when Hogan threw a pass in the face of pressure, an eyelash’s length away from the fingers of UCLA’s Sheldon Price into the arms of wide receiver Drew Terrell to tie the game at 24. Jordan Williamson’s field goal with 6:49 remaining put Stanford up for good to finish the game with a 27-24 win.

The Cardinal’s narrow escape is all but expected. A blowout like last week was not likely to happen with a talented coach like Jim Mora. Mora is of Chip Kelly’s breed, with focus never escaping the next game and the preparations for the Pac-12 championship reflect that. The game was destined to be close after each team’s adjustments.

Not to be lost in Stanford’s triumph is the Bruins’ success. UCLA finished with its best season in recent memory, despite ending on a two-game losing streak. A BCS berth escaped the Bruins this season, but the return of quarterback Brett Hundley is perhaps the most promising sign for this developing team.

Hundley’s success is the major takeaway for UCLA this season. Add in the school’s new all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin, star linebacker Anthony Barr and the fact the Bruins were able to legitimately defeat the highly-touted Trojans of Southern Cal, not only in their head-to-head contest but in the grand scheme of the Pac-12 South and UCLA has a most memorable season on its hands.

“I think we have a lot to be proud of this year,” Mora said. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot so far. It’s only the beginning. We’ve been together less than a year. I think our seniors have set a great foundation, which we can build on and become a football team that year in and year out competes for, not only Pac-12 Championships, but at the highest level. That’s our goal.”

Yet overshadowing all other stories in the Pac-12 this season is Stanford’s unexpected triumph against one of college football’s toughest conferences. The Cardinal did what they were not supposed to do. They beat Southern Cal by punishing Matt Barkley and forcing the Trojans into a defensive battle in which they were clearly outmatched by the thick teeth of Stanford’s defensive front. The Cardinal outscored Arizona on the arm of Nunes, whose inconsistencies left his status in question. They accomplished the seemingly impossible, shutting down Oregon’s offense.

Stanford did all this without attracting attention. The defense dominated the day and Stepfan Taylor carried the Cardinal on offense, finishing with 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns. (If Taylor had been given the touchdown in overtime against Notre Dame, their view may have been less rosy and more crystal.)

David Shaw and company established Stanford as the pinnacle of excellence, which is exactly what they expected but no one else did. With his freshman quarterback at his side, Shaw is proving that his team earned all it’s gotten. What it has gotten is a spot in the Rose Bowl and the reestablishment of the Stanford Cardinal as a Pac-12 powerhouse.

Complete Conference Standings

Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
• Running back Ka’Deem Carey was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. Carey finished the season with 1,757 yards and 20 touchdowns in his sophomore season to lead the conference.

• Arizona kicker John Bonano was named an All-Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete. Bonano was the top-scoring kicker this season in the Pac-12 as well as reeling in a 3.927 GPA as a physiology major.

Next Game: New Mexico Bowl vs. Nevada, Dec. 15

Arizona State (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
• Star defensive tackle Will Sutton was named the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, which is given to the Pac-12’s top-performing defensive player. Sutton led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game. He is also a Chuck Bednarik Award semifinalist for the nation’s best defensive player.

Next Game: Fight Hunger Bowl vs. Navy, Dec. 29

California (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12) • Kicker Vincenzo D’Amato and center Brian Schwenke were named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. D’Amato made the most field goals in the conference this season while Schwenke started all 12 of Cal’s games at center, a position which he had previously never played in college.

Colorado (1-11, 1-8 Pac-12) 
• Colorado fired head coach Jon Embree after the team’s one-win season. Embree, in two seasons as head coach, only won four games.

• The university is making efforts to show its dedication to the football program by vowing to invest in upgrading facilities and bumping up its budget for a new head coach, according to Chancellor Phil DiStefano and Athletic Director Mike Bohn.

No. 5 Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
• Quarterback Marcus Mariota took home freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors after winning 2,511 yards and an incredible 30 touchdowns to only six interceptions.

• The Ducks tied Stanford with five players on First-Team All-Pac-12 with Mariota, Kenjon Barner, Hroniss Grasu, Dion Jordan and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu earning positions.

Next Game: Fiesta Bowl vs. Kansas State, Jan. 3

No. 15 Oregon State (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12)
• Oregon State enjoyed the luxury of another game between the final week of the season and its bowl game without making the Pac-12 Championship. The Beavers defeated Nicholls State 77-3.

• Oregon State came in behind Oregon and Stanford with four players named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. Markus Wheaton, Scott Crichton, Jordan Poyer and Jordan Jenkins earned spots.

Next Game: Alamo Bowl vs. Texas, Dec. 29

Southern Cal (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
 
• Assistant head coach Monte Kiffin announced he will leave Southern Cal after three seasons. Kiffin plans to pursue options in the NFL where he won a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator at Tampa Bay.

• Wide Receiver Marquise Lee won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors. Lee led the Pac-12 with 112 receptions and 1,680 receiving yards. He is high on many folks’ Heisman Trophy watch lists.

Next Game: Sun Bowl vs. Georgia Tech, Dec. 31

No. 8 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12
• The Cardinal earned their spot in the Rose Bowl with its second consecutive victory against Pac-12 South champion UCLA. This is Stanford’s first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1999, which ended in a 17-9 loss to Wisconsin.

• Zach Ertz, David Yankey, Trent Murphy, Chase Thomas and Ed Reynolds all earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors.

Next Game: Rose Bowl vs. Texas, Jan. 1

UCLA (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12)  
• The Bruins, although giving Stanford a much healthier fight than in Week 13, lost the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl bid. UCLA will still receive a bowl game, but the question is where. Regardless, it will be valuable experience for a budding team.

• Linebacker Anthony Barr earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team as did offensive lineman Jeff Baca.

Next Game: Holiday Bowl vs. Baylor, Dec. 27

Utah (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12
• Utah placed two players on the All-Pac-12 First Team in defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who led the conference in forced fumbles with four, and return specialist Reggie Dunn, who had three 100-yard kick return touchdowns in two weeks and is the NCAA record holder in 100-yard returns with five.

Washington (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12
• Washington’s only All-Pac-12 First Team selection was senior defensive back Desmond Trufant. Trufant started all four years at corner for the nation’s 17th-ranked pass defense. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins earned second team honors.

Next Game: Las Vegas Bowl vs. Boise State, Dec. 22

Washington State (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12
• The Cougars joined Colorado as the only two teams in the Pac-12 without a first team all-conference honoree. Washington State kicker Andrew Furney and defensive back Deone Bucannon, however, earned second team honors.