Ohio State started the season ranked #1 and proceeded to roll off 5 easy wins by a combined score of 195-60. In their sixth game, they beat #20 Northwestern in Columbus, 24-10. But for some reason, Texas leapfrogged Ohio State to #1 after beating unranked Rice 45-21 that same day. The next week the Buckeyes won at Wisconsin 24-10 and dropped another spot to #3 as Notre Dame moved up to #2. After a 10-7 win at Purdue, they fell to #5 despite still being undefeated, as Nebraska and Michigan passed them. They earned the Rose Bowl berth on the strength of their 20-9 victory over #4 Michigan in the game that decided the Big 10 title and rose back to #3. A week later, Notre Dame was upset by USC and Ohio State was back at #2 behind Texas. After Texas had lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the day, Ohio State went into the Rose Bowl with a chance to claim the national championship with a win.
Stanford started the season ranked #10, and in the season opener they upset #4 Arkansas at Little Rock, 34-28. After an easy win over San Jose State, they traveled to Eugene, Oregon for a game that featured a quarterback battle between Stanford's Jim Plunkett and Oregon's Dan Fouts. Stanford won 33-10, but then were caught looking ahead to their showdown with USC and lost at home to Purdue, 24-16. They then beat 3-time defending Pacific 8 champion USC at Stanford, 24-14 (avenging a last second loss to the Trojans the year before). An easy 63-16 win over conference doormat Washington State boosted the Indians to #8. Next up was a showdown with #16 UCLA in Los Angeles for the conference lead. In what was expected to be another quarterback showdown between Plunkett and the Bruins' Dennis Dummit, the defenses dominated in Stanford's key 9-7 win. After an easy win over Oregon State, they rose to #6 before clinching the conference title in the Rose Bowl decider over Sonny Sixkiller and Washington, 29-22. They then suffered a pair of letdowns, losing to #13 Air Force 31-14 and to arch rival California, 22-14. In retrospect, the Pac-8 standings were so tightly bunched, that a win by either Oregon, UCLA, or Washington over Stanford would have sent that team to the Rose Bowl instead.