Michigan opened at home in 2003 winning big over Central Michigan and Houston. A 38-0 shutout of Notre Dame propelled the Wolverines to a #3 ranking, but they lost the next week at Oregon, 31-27. Michigan bounced back to beat Indiana, but then lost another close road game at Iowa, 30-27. Michigan played next on a Friday evening, October 10, at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in a battle for the Little Brown Jug against Minnesota. Minnesota came into the game ranked #17 and Michigan was ranked #20 in one of the most highly anticipated Michigan-Minnesota matchups in years. Down 21 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Michigan put together its greatest comeback in school history to win 38-35. The Wolverines won their next four games over Illinois, #10 Purdue, #9 Michigan State, and Northwestern and rose to #5 in the rankings before their annual showdown with the Ohio State Buckeyes. In front of a record crowd of 112,118 at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines beat the #4 ranked Buckeyes 35-21 to win the Big Ten championship outright.
The Trojans opened the season winning at #6 Auburn, 23-0. Their only loss of the season was a triple overtime loss at Cal, 34-31 on September 27. Later in the season, USC beat Notre Dame 45-14, scoring the most points allowed by the Irish in since 1960, and routed Arizona 45-0 in the first shutout of the Wildcats in 146 games.
Former University of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was in attendance, and remarked, "Didn't watch it," when asked what he thought of the 2003 game and also about the Nebraska-Miami Rose Bowl in 2002. The Trojans wore a "54" sticker to commemorate Drean Rucker, an incoming freshman linebacker who drowned in July 2003. Former USC Trojans safety Troy Polamalu also was in attendance and was on the USC sideline. He was also shown embracing coach Pete Carroll at the game's end.
LSU defeated Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl. As they were contractually obligated, the Coaches Poll chose the winner of that game, the LSU Tigers, as the BCS National Champions. The AP Poll, however, selected the Rose Bowl champion USC Trojans, resulting in the first split national title since the 1997-98 season, the year before the creation of the Bowl Championship Series.