Because the Rose Bowl was hosting the BCS Championship game, as part of the agreement begun in the 1998 season, the Tournament of Roses committee would get the number one and number two ranked teams in the Bowl Championship Series system. However, this was actually the third Rose Bowl number one versus two pairing, with the first two in the 1963 and 1969 games.
Nebraska became the first team from outside the Southern United States to play in a BCS title game, as the previous three title games were all-Southern affairs.
In yet another controversial season for the BCS, No. 4 Nebraska was chosen as a national title contender despite not having played in the Big 12 championship game. The Huskers went into their last regularly scheduled game at Colorado undefeated, but were beaten by Colorado 62–36. The Huskers dropped from No. 2 to No. 6 in the wire service polls. In the ensuing days, No. 2 Florida lost to Tennessee, the Colorado Buffaloes went on to win the Big 12 Championship Game over No. 3 Texas, and in the SEC Championship Game, No. 2 Tennessee was stunned by LSU. This left Miami as the undefeated and undisputed No. 1 team in the country but a host of other teams vying for #2. The BCS computers did not take into account at which point a team's loss came during the season. There were also components for strength of schedule, quality win, and margin of victory. With this calculation, one-loss Nebraska came out ahead of two-loss Colorado and one-loss, second-ranked Oregon.
Previously, Nebraska had appeared in the 1941 Rose Bowl in a 21–13 loss to Stanford. This was the first appearance for the Miami Hurricanes in the Rose Bowl.
Oregon defeated Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. In the final AP poll, Miami was the unanimous No. 1 team, Oregon was #2. The next time that the Rose Bowl hosted the BCS championship, the 2006 Rose Bowl, the USC Trojans would be a participant. As of the 2014 Rose Bowl, either a Pac-10/12 and/or Big Ten team has played in the game since the 2002 Rose Bowl. Nebraska has also joined the Big Ten, and can now play in the Rose Bowl through the Big Ten's tie-in with that game. Nebraska almost made the Rose Bowl in the 2012 season, but lost the Big Ten Championship Game to Wisconsin.
The game, which was played on a Thursday night, two days after the parade, has been remembered as a low point for the Rose Bowl. University of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler remarked, "Didn't watch it," when asked what he thought of the 2002 Rose Bowl.