During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for the major college football teams in the University Division, later known as Division I-A. The NCAA did recognize a national champion based upon the final results of "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The extent of that recognition came in the form of acknowledgment in the annual 'NCAA Football Guide of the "unofficial" national champions. The AP poll in 1962 consisted of the votes of 52 sportswriters, each of whom would give their opinion of the ten best teams. Under a point system of 10 points for first place, 9 for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined. Although the rankings were based on the collective opinion of the representative sportswriters, the teams that remained "unbeaten and untied" were generally ranked higher than those that had not. A defeat, even against a strong opponent, tended to cause a team to drop in the rankings, and a team with two or more defeats was unlikely to remain in the Top 10. The top teams played on New Year's Day in the four major postseason bowl games: the Rose (near Los Angeles at Pasadena), Sugar (New Orleans), Orange (Miami) and Cotton (Dallas).
Both the Border Conference and the Skyline Conference folded after the 1961 season, with some of the members joining the WAC. The remaining members of the Border (Hardin–Simmons, New Mexico State, Texas Western, and West Texas State) and the Skyline (Colorado State, Montana, and Utah State) became independents. The only exception was Denver, who dropped its football program entirely.
The Mid-American Conference moved up from the College Division to the University Division beginning in 1962. The conference had been considered among the best in the college division. The previous year two MAC schools, Western Michigan and Bowling Green, were invited to bowl games. The conference produced college division national champions Ohio in 1960 and Bowling Green in 1959. In addition, Miami of Ohio finished second in the final 1958 College Division poll and was ranked in the final major AP and UPI polls in 1955.
In the preseason poll released on September 17, Ohio State was the #1 choice for 45 of the 50 voters, and its Big Ten rival, Michigan State was 4th overall. Texas placed second, and SEC rivals Alabama and Louisiana State (LSU) were third and fifth respectively. As the regular season progressed, a new poll would be issued on the Monday following the weekend's games. Ohio State, Michigan State and the other Big Ten schools would not kick off until September 29. On September 22, #2 Texas beat Oregon at home, 25-13. #3 Alabama and #5 LSU both recorded shutouts, defeating Georgia (at Birmingham 35-0) and Texas A&M (21-0) respectively. In the poll that followed, Alabama rose to #1, while Ohio State and Texas fell to 2nd and 3rd. Penn State, which had beaten Navy at home 41-7, rose from 9th to 4th, while LSU remained at #5. Also on the 22nd, the first games of the newly formed Western Athletic Conference took place as Arizona beat BYU, 27-21, and New Mexico beat Wyoming 25-21. All six of the charter members (including Arizona State and Utah) had withdrawn by 1999.
The following Friday, #1 Alabama beat Tulane in New Orleans, 44-6. On September 29, #2 Ohio State beat North Carolina at home, 41-7. #3 Texas registered a shutout on the road against Texas Tech, 34-0 while #4 Penn State hosted Air Force, winning 20-6. In Baton Rouge, #5 LSU played Rice to a 6-6 tie, enough to knock it from the Top Ten. In the poll that followed, Ohio State was again #1, followed by 2.Alabama 3.Texas 4.Penn State Newcomer Georgia Tech, which had blanked Florida in Gainesville, 17-0, rose from 8th place to 5th.
On October 6, #1 Ohio State was upset by the UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles, 9-7. #2 Alabama beat Vanderbilt in Birmingham, 17-7. #3 Texas hosted Tulane (fresh from a 44-6 loss to Alabama) and won 35-8. #4 Penn State beat Rice at Houston, 18-7. #5 Georgia Tech lost to LSU in Atlanta, 10-7, and dropped back out of the poll. The Crimson Tide regained first place, while 3-0 USC and Mississippi rose from 6th and 7th places to 4th and 5th. The next poll was 1.Alabama 2.Texas 3.Penn State 4.USC and 5.Mississippi
October 13#1 Alabama beat Houston 14-3 at home. #2 Texas survived its Dallas encounter with Oklahoma, 9-6. #3 Penn State lost to Army at West Point by the same 9-6 margin. #4 USC and #5 Mississippi were both idle. Though Alabama got more first place votes than Texas in the poll (24 vs. 21) the Longhorns had more points overall, and were the new #1. SEC rivals Alabama, LSU and Mississippi were 2nd, 4th and 5th in the poll, while USC was third. LSU's record had improved to 3-0-1 after a 17-3 win against the visiting Miami Hurricanes. The results were 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.USC 4.LSU and 5.Mississippi
On October 20, all five of the top teams remained unbeaten. #1 Texas beat Arkansas 7-3 at home. #2 Alabama defeated Tennessee at Knoxville, 27-7. The #3 USC Trojans hosted California and won 32-3. #4 LSU beat Kentucky at Lexington 7-0 and #5 Mississippi shut out Tulane in New Orleans, 21-0. Nevertheless, LSU and Mississippi dropped to 6th and 7th in the next poll, while Big Ten rivals Northwestern and Wisconsin reached the Top 5. Northwestern had beaten Ohio State 18-14 at Columbus, while Wisconsin thrashed Iowa 42-14. The rankings were 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.Northwestern 4.USC 5.Wisconsin
In the first weekend after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, week 7's games were played on October 27. 45 days after President Kennedy asked "why does Rice play Texas" in a speech at Rice Stadium, the 0-3-1 Owls tied the #1 Longhorns on the same field, 14-14. #2 Alabama beat Tulsa 35-6 and, #3 Northwestern defeated Notre Dame 35-6 at home. #4 USC won 28-16 over Illinois at Champaign, and #5 Wisconsin lost to Ohio State at Columbus, 14-7. The #6 LSU Tigers shut out Florida 23-0 at home. The Northwestern Wildcats were voted into first place, followed by 2.Alabama 3.USC 4.LSU and 5.Texas.
November 3#1 Northwestern narrowly defeated Indiana, 26-21, at Bloomington. #2 Alabama and #3 USC shut out Mississippi State (20-0) and Washington (14-0), respectively. #4 LSU lost at home to #7 Mississippi, and #5 Texas got past SMU at home, 6-0. The poll was 1.Northwestern 2.USC 3.Alabama 4.Mississippi and 5.Texas.
November 10#1 Northwestern was beaten at Madison by #8 Wisconsin, 37-6. #3 Alabama beat Miami 36-3 and #2 USC won at Stanford, 39-14. #4 Mississippi defeated UT-Chattanooga 52-7, and #5 Texas won at Baylor, 27-12. With the return of Wisconsin to the Top 5, and Northwestern dropping out, the poll was 1.Alabama 2.USC 3.Mississippi 4.Wisconsin and 5.Texas.
November 17#1 Alabama travelled to Atlanta and lost to Georgia Tech, 7-6. #2 USC defeated Navy, 13-6, at home. #3 Mississippi beat Tennessee at Knoxville, 19-6 #4 Wisconsin won at Illinois, 35-6, and #5 Texas beat Texas Christian, 14-0. The last two unbeaten and untied teams, USC and Mississippi, were first and second in the next poll, followed by 3.Wisconsin 4.Texas and 5.Minnesota, which had beaten Purdue 7-6 .
On Thanksgiving Day (the 22nd), #4 Texas hosted Texas A & M and won 13-3 to clinch the Southwestern conference title and the Cotton Bowl bid, half a game ahead of Arkansas. On November 24#1 USC beat UCLA, 14-3, extending its record to 9-0-0 and finishing a game ahead of Washington for the AAWU title and the Rose Bowl bid. #2 Mississippi was idle. USC's bowl opponent was determined in the season-ending game between #3 Wisconsin and #5 Minnesota, both 5-1-0 in Big Ten conference play. They met at Madison and the Badgers won on their home field, 14-9, to take the Big Ten title and the trip to the Rose Bowl. In the penultimate poll, USC retained the #1 spot, and Wisconsin was 2nd with an 8-1-0 record. Despite being unbeaten and untied, Mississippi placed third in the voting, followed by #4 Texas and #5 Alabama. The stage was set for a meeting of #1 and #2 at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
December 1, #1 USC closed a perfect season by beating Notre Dame 25-0 in Los Angeles for a 10-0-0 finish. #3 Mississippi beat Mississippi State 13-6 at home to close with a 9-0-0 record, the SEC championship, and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, while #5 Alabama beat Auburn 38-0 in the season-ender at Birmingham to close their season at 10-1-0 and second place. The Tide accepted a bid to face Big 8 champion Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The final AP poll, which determined the unofficial national championship, was released on December 3. USC finished first, followed by Wisconsin, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama. The NCAA Football Guide recognized the University of Southern California as the 1962 champion as number one in both the AP poll and the UPI poll.
The 1962–1963 Bowl Season is notable for the 1963 Rose Bowl. This game is the first #1 versus #2 bowl game pairing in the history of the AP Poll and the UPI Poll, both singly and jointly. However, neither poll published rankings after the bowl games at this time, so USC was already the season-ending #1 and would remain so, regardless of the outcome of the game.