The 1973 Ohio State Buckeyes began the season ranked #3, and proceeded to go undefeated. They were led by tailback Archie Griffin on offense and a defense that held its opponents to less than 100 yards per game of total offense. Going into the showdown at #4 Michigan, they had risen to #1 by outscoring their first nine opponents 361–33, including three straight shutouts of Northwestern, Illinois, and Michigan State. The Buckeyes and Wolverines then battled to a 10–10 tie, making it uncertain who would win the vote among Big Ten athletic directors to determine the league's Rose Bowl representative. Although the Big Ten had done away with its "no repeat" rule a year earlier, many people thought that Michigan would win the vote since Ohio State had gone to Pasadena the prior year. But Michigan starting quarterback, Dennis Franklin, had broken his collarbone late in the Ohio State game; perhaps influenced by the injury, the athletic directors voted 6–4 to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler called it a gross injustice.
USC was the defending national champion and began the season ranked #1. But a 7–7 tie vs. Oklahoma and a 23–14 loss to Notre Dame dropped the Trojans to #9. They then needed a miracle comeback to beat Stanford 27–26, getting a touchdown and field goal sandwiched around an onside kick in the last minute of the game. They went into the Rose Bowl decider as a slight underdog against #8 UCLA, but forced six turnovers and knocked off the Bruins 23–13.