Washington, the defending Pac-10 champion, began the season ranked 15th. After winning their first three games to rise to #12, they were knocked off by Arizona State in Seattle, 26–7. They won their next four games, heading into crucial matchups with UCLA and USC. UCLA shut out the Huskies 31–0 in Los Angeles but then Washington shut down USC and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen 13–3 in Seattle. Washington then claimed the Pac-10 title by beating rival Washington State, 23–10, while USC knocked UCLA out of 1st place with a 22–21 win in which they blocked a Bruins' last second field goal attempt.
Iowa started the season by upsetting #7 Nebraska, losing to Iowa State, then upsetting #6 UCLA. The Hawkeyes took over first place in the Big Ten with a 9–7 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, but fell to third place behind Ohio State and Michigan with back to back losses to Minnesota and Illinois. They rose back into a tie for second place when Minnesota upset Ohio State. When Ohio State beat Michigan 14–9 in Ann Arbor, that knocked the Wolverines out of first, and left Iowa and Ohio State tied atop the Big 10 standings. Because they did not play each other, Iowa was awarded the Rose Bowl berth since Ohio State had been to the Rose Bowl more recently.