Prior to the BCS, this pairing never would have occurred. Oklahoma came into the game Big 12 Champions, while Washington State came in co-champions of the Pac-10. The Rose Bowl normally features the champions of the Big Ten and the Pac-10. However, because the Buckeyes had finished #2 in the BCS, they were set to play in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl for the national championship against Miami (Fla.) Earlier in the season, Ohio State had defeated Washington State 25-7.
The Orange Bowl had the next pick after the Fiesta Bowl pairing, and #3 (#5 BCS) Iowa was chosen. The Rose Bowl had the next BCS selection. The next, best available team to choose was #8 (#7 BCS) Oklahoma, who won the Big 12 Championship Game, to play Pac-10 winner Washington State. When it came time for the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl to make a second pick, both wanted USC. However, a BCS rule stated that if two bowls want the same team, the bowl with the higher payoff has the option. The Orange Bowl immediately extended an at-large bid to the number 5 ranked Trojans and paired them with at-large number 3 Iowa in a Big Ten/Pac-10 "Rose Bowl" matchup in the 2003 Orange Bowl. Rose Bowl committee executive director Mitch Dorger was not pleased with the results. This left the Sugar Bowl with #14 BCS Florida State, the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame at 10-2 and #9 in the BCS standings was invited to the 2003 Gator Bowl. Kansas State at #8 also was left out.
The Sooners won the Big 12 South and defeated Colorado in the Big 12 Championship game. Kansas State, although ranked higher in the AP poll, lost to Colorado in the Big 12 North, and could not play in the championship game.
Due to its untraditional match up,[original research?] this game drew one of the fewest attendance numbers in the modern history of the Rose Bowl. It was the first time that the stadium held less than the nominal capacity for the Rose Bowl game since before the 1947 Rose Bowl and the agreement between the PAC-10 and Big Ten conferences. The 1944 Rose Bowl had the third smallest crowd played in the Rose Bowl stadium at 68,000. The 1931 Rose Bowl had the second smallest crowd at 60,000. The smallest crowd at the Rose Bowl stadium was the 1934 Rose Bowl at 35,000.