Michigan began the season ranked #2, and rose to #1 after four games. However, a stunning 16–0 loss at Minnesota dropped them to #6. A 14–6 win over #4 Ohio State gave the Wolverines the Big Ten title and they came into the Rose Bowl ranked #4.
Washington stumbled out of the gate, losing three of their first four games. They then won the rest of their games except for a 20–12 loss at UCLA. The Huskies earned the Rose Bowl berth when UCLA lost its final game on a last second field goal to USC, 29–27.
With Notre Dame beating #1 Texas early on New Year's Day, Michigan had hopes that a dominant win over Washington would boost the Wolverines to the top ranking in the country. The Huskies' dramatic upset ended those hopes, and Notre Dame was voted #1 among five one-loss teams; Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Penn State were the others.