At the beginning of this year, who would have picked Stanford and UCLA over Oregon and USC to play in the conference championship game?

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Back in August — before that, really — we all knew who was going to play in the Pac-12 football title game.

We all knew who was the hands-down best team in the North, and there was no real doubt about the superior team in the South.

Come on down, Stanford and UCLA.

As for Oregon and USC, well, sorry. The Ducks only flinched against Stanford, but it was enough. As for the Trojans, they’re 7-5. That Sports Illustrated preseason cover headline about Matt Barkley — “He didn’t come back to go to the Holiday Bowl” — was so true. But he really didn’t come back to go to the Sun Bowl, which is where Troy may be headed.

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What We Learned

Embree’s firing at Colorado is an eye-opener. Now we have it quantified, the impact of the big-bucks TV contracts the Pac-12 signed for 2012-13.

Embree is a Colorado alum. He was widely regarded as a genuinely good guy. Yes, he was 4-21 in two years, but it was two years. Consider that Paul Wulff got twice that at Washington State, with just about the same rate of success.

No doubt the high-powered hires of last offseason, and the generally big results, had something to do with the urge at Colorado to step it up. But the Buffs must assess how badly they want to play the money game. They were paying Embree only $725,000, far less than any other Pac-12 coach.

No wonder USC fans are so ticked off. The late-game goal-line misadventures in a 22-13 loss to Notre Dame were probably only cosmetic; even if USC had scored, it was probably going to lose. But they highlighted the growing unease with Lane Kiffin as the Trojans’ coach.

“The coach who has enraged fans with his play-calling and game management unfurled more mind-bending strategy that turned this game on its ear hole,” wrote L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke.

Kiffin is the first coach at USC to lose to UCLA and Notre Dame since 1995, and he doesn’t look any better after the observation of backup quarterback Max Wittek, who told reporters, “No one imagined losing five games with the talent we have.”

As if that weren’t enough, the failure to dent the end zone for what appeared to be a sure touchdown meant that the Trojans failed to cover the point spread that ranged from six to seven points.

It’s not easy being Oregon State. The Beavers need to apologize to no one for a season that could still end with 10 victories, nor the 2008 and 2009 years in which they took their Rose Bowl chances to a final game with Oregon.

It’s just that they live next to the Ducks, and they’re still major strides behind Oregon, exemplified by the Ducks’ 48-24 cruise through Corvallis in which they rushed for 430 yards.

The Ducks received tough judgment in the AP poll, however, as they fell to No. 6, with Florida inching past them. Still, Oregon appears likely for the Fiesta Bowl.

Go ahead, name the two all-league running backs. You’ll have to pick among Arizona’s Ka’deem Carey (1,757 yards), Oregon’s Kenjon Barner (1,624), UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (1,506) and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor (1,364).

Naming the all-conference quarterback (the team will be announced Monday or Tuesday) is only slightly easier. I was in the Matt Scott camp until the weekend, but would tilt toward Oregon’s Marcus Mariota now, with Scott’s four turnovers against ASU dropping him to second team.

When the Apple Cup is in Pullman, expect a thriller. The NCAA legislated overtime into the rules in 1996, and since then four of nine UW-WSU games in Pullman have gone to overtime.

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