Ohio State started the season ranked #1 and proceeded to roll off five 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 three-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.