UCLA's Bruins, featuring stellar quarterback Troy Aikman, had attained the #1 ranking for weeks 7 and 8 after demolishing then #2 Nebraska 41-28, before sustaining a huge upset loss to unheralded Washington State 34-30 in week 9, opening the door for Notre Dame. The 1988 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with Notre Dame winning the national championship. The Fighting Irish won the title via a 34-21 defeat of previously unbeaten West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.
Notre Dame had several notable victories this season, including a 19–17 victory over #9 Michigan, won on a last drive field goal, which started off the championship season. The season's marquee game was a 31–30 victory over #1 Miami. Entering the game, Miami had a 36 game regular season winning streak, 20 straight road victories and a 16-game winning streak overall. This year was also the first time Notre Dame and USC had ever met when ranked #1 and #2. Most notable about this game is Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz's decision to leave behind two of his stars, Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters because they were late, cementing discipline as the main theme of this championship team.
This year's edition of the UCLA-USC rivalry game featured a second ranked USC and a fourth ranked UCLA. For the second year in a row the Rose Bowl berth was on the line but for USC it also had national title implications as the rivalry game with Notre Dame was the following week. USC beat UCLA but lost to Notre Dame, and then lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
Defensive teams can now return blocked PAT kicks and interceptions on two-point conversion attempts for a defensive score worth two points. Fumbles on PAT/two-point conversions cannot be recovered and advanced by the offensive team other than the fumbling player, and the defense cannot convert fumbles into two point defensive scores.
Teams are permitted to take consecutive time-outs, previously this was prohibited.
Illegal use of hands penalties are increased from 5 to 10 yards.