The defending 1981 Rose Bowl champion Wolverines, who were the preseason #1, opened with a loss to Wisconsin. This led to the Badgers being ranked afterwards. The Wolverines responded the next week by beating Notre Dame 25-7. Wins over Navy and Indiana led to a cross state showdown at Michigan State, where the Wolverines downed the Spartans 38-20. The next week, Michigan hosted Iowa and lost 9–7. Michigan would win the next four games leading up to the Michigan–Ohio State rivalry football game on November 21. Michigan lost to Ohio State 14–9. Ohio State and Iowa were tied for the Big Ten conference championship. Iowa would go on to the 1982 Rose Bowl, as Iowa and Ohio State did not play each other, and Ohio State had been to the 1980 Rose Bowl.
The Bruins opened the season with wins at Arizona and at #20 Wisconsin. They lost at Iowa, the eventual Big Ten champion 20–9. Even with a 26–23 loss at Stanford and a tie at Washington State, the Bruins were in position to win the Pacific-10 after four straight wins. Going into the UCLA–USC rivalry football game, The Rose Bowl was on the line for the third time for Terry Donahue's UCLA Bruins teams against USC. UCLA lost to USC in a 21–20 nailbiter, which put Washington into the 1982 Rose Bowl. Washington had defeated USC just the week before in what would prove to be the other conference deciding game.