Prior to the BCS, the New Year's Day pairings never would have occurred. The Rose Bowl normally features the champions of the Big Ten (in 2002, the Ohio State Buckeyes) and the Pac-10. However, because the Buckeyes had finished No. 2 in the BCS, they were set to play in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl for the national championship against Miami (Fla.)
The Orange Bowl had the next pick after the Fiesta Bowl pairing, and No. 3 (#5 BCS) Iowa was chosen. The Rose Bowl had the next BCS selection. The next, best available team to choose was No. 8 (#7 BCS) Oklahoma, who won the Big 12 Championship Game, to play Pac-10 winner Washington State in the 2003 Rose Bowl. When it came time for the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl to make a second pick, both wanted USC. However, a BCS rule stated that if two bowls want the same team, the bowl with the higher payoff has the option. The Orange Bowl immediately extended an at-large bid to the number 5 ranked Trojans and paired them with at-large number 3 Iowa in a Big Ten/Pac-10 "Rose Bowl" matchup in the 2003 Orange Bowl. Rose Bowl committee executive director Mitch Dorger was not pleased with the results. This left the Sugar Bowl with No. 14 BCS Florida State, the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame at 10–2 and No. 9 in the BCS standings was invited to the 2003 Gator Bowl. Kansas State at No. 8 also was left out.
On October 5, in the 300th game for USC on live television, the Washington State Cougars defeated the USC Trojans 30–27 in overtime. The Cougars scored with 1:50 left to play to force overtime. The Cougars and Trojans ended up tied for first place in the Pac-10, but the Cougars won the tie-breaker by virtue of the head-to-head competition victory. The final game of the season had been moved to December 2 with Washington State at UCLA. Originally it was thought that the Bruins would be the team playing for the Rose Bowl. A 52–21 loss to USC put the Bruins out of contention and the Trojans and Cougars in. Washington State defeated UCLA 48–27 in the Rose Bowl Stadium to advance to the Rose Bowl game. This was the final game for UCLA head coach Bob Toledo, who was fired following the game.