The 1954 college football season saw three teams finish unbeaten and untied, with Ohio State Buckeyes and the UCLA Bruins sharing the national championship as the No. 1 picks of the AP Poll and the UPI Poll, respectively. Although the winners of the Big Ten and the Pacific conferences normally met in the Rose Bowl, a "no repeat" prevented the two champions from meeting. UCLA, which had been in the Rose Bowl earlier in the year, was replaced by conference runner-up USC.
During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for the college football teams that would later be described as "Division I-A". The NCAA did recognize a national champion based upon the final results of "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The extent of that recognition came in the form of acknowledgment in the annual NCAA Football Guide of the "unofficial" national champions. The AP poll in 1954 consisted of the votes of as many as 419 sportswriters.
Though not all writers voted in every poll, each would give their opinion of the twenty best teams. Under a point system of 20 points for first place, 19 for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined. Although the rankings were based on the collective opinion of the representative sportswriters, the teams that remained "unbeaten and untied" were generally ranked higher than those that had not. A defeat, even against a strong opponent, tended to cause a team to drop in the rankings, and a team with two or more defeats was unlikely to remain in the Top 20. Generally, the top teams played on New Year's Day in the four major postseason bowl games: the Rose Bowl (near Los Angeles at Pasadena), the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), the Orange Bowl (Miami), and the Cotton Bowl (Dallas).
In 1954, a limit of 10 games per season, excluding a bowl game, was imposed on all teams, with the exception that existing contracts would not be changed.
In the preseason poll released on September 13, 1954, No. 1 Notre Dame had the most points, although No. 2 Oklahoma had more first place votes (74 vs. 52). Rounding out the Top Five were defending champion No. 3 Maryland, No. 4 Texas and No. 5 Illinois. As the regular season progressed, a new poll would be issued on the Monday following the weekend's games.
September 18, No. 2 Oklahoma won at No. 12 California 27–13, and No. 3 Maryland won at Kentucky, 20–0. Notre Dame and Texas, No. 1 and No. 4, were preparing to meet at South Bend to open their seasons. Oklahoma replaced Notre Dame as No. 1 in the first regular poll. No. 7 Georgia Tech, which beat Tulane 28–0 in Atlanta, replaced Illinois in the Top Five. Defying high expectations, the Illini would lose their opener to Penn State, 14–12, and finish the season with a 1–8–0 record. The poll: 1.Oklahoma 2.Notre Dame 3.Maryland 4.Texas 5.Georgia Tech.
September 25No. 2 Notre Dame hosted No. 4 Texas and won 21–0. No. 1 Oklahoma beat No. 20 Texas Christian (TCU) 21–16. No. 3 Maryland was idle, and No. 5 Georgia Tech lost to Florida, 13–12. Notre Dame took back over the top spot from O.U., and Texas, Maryland and Georgia Tech were replaced by No. 8 UCLA (32–7 over Kansas), No. 10 Wisconsin (52–14 over Marquette) and No. 11 Iowa (14–10 over No. 7 Michigan State). The poll: 1.Notre Dame 2.Oklahoma 3.Iowa 4.UCLA 5.Wisconsin
October 9No. 1 Oklahoma won its annual game in Dallas against No. 15 Texas, 14–7. No. 2 UCLA edged Washington 21–20. No. 3 Wisconsin beat No. 11 Rice 13–7. No. 4 Iowa lost to unranked Michigan, 14–13, and No. 5 Purdue was tied by No. 6 Duke, 13–13 (in the next poll, they stayed at No. 5 and No. 6). No. 10 Ohio State, which had won at Illinois 40–7, entered the Top Five: 1.Oklahoma 2.Wisconsin 3.UCLA 4.Ohio State 5.Purdue.
October 23No. 2 Wisconsin faced its second top-ranked opponent in a week, visiting Big Ten rival and No. 4 Ohio State. OSU won, 31–14, to take the No. 1 spot. No. 1 Oklahoma beat Kansas State 21–0, and No. 3 UCLA beat Oregon State 61–0. No. 5 Mississippi lost to No. 7 Arkansas at Little Rock, 6–0. No. 9 Army, which had won 67–12 at Columbia, moved up. The poll: 1.Ohio State 2.Oklahoma 3.UCLA 4.Arkansas 5.Army
October 30No. 1 Ohio State won at Northwestern, 14–7. No. 2 Oklahoma won 13–6 at Colorado.
No. 3 UCLA won at California 27–6 and was given top billing in the next poll. No. 4 Arkansas won 14–7 at Texas A & M. No. 5 Army, which got to stay home, edged Virginia 21–20. No. 6 Notre Dame, which beat No. 15 Navy 6–0 in Baltimore, moved up. The poll: 1.UCLA 2.Ohio State 3.Oklahoma 4.Arkansas 5.Notre Dame.
AP ranked Ohio State as No. 1, while the UPI coaches' poll gave the top spot to UCLA. Both wire services' rankings were made at the end of the regular season, and were unaffected by the postseason bowl games. Ohio State and UCLA had two common opponents in 1954; Cal and USC. Ohio State defeated Cal 21–13 and USC 20–7, while UCLA defeated Cal 27–6 and USC 34–0.
The United Press International poll, taken from a panel of 35 coaches, had UCLA as the number one team beginning with the poll released on October 26. A rival to the AP poll, the UPI prefaced its release with the statement, "The men who know the game the best, the coaches themselves, voted UCLA to the top spot by the slender margin of seven points over Ohio State, the perfect record champions of the Big 10 Conference,"  The UPI poll was a Top Ten, with a first place vote by a coach being worth 10 points, second worth 9 points, etc. With 350 being the maximum number of points, and 315 being the total for 35 second place votes, the panel was split on whether UCLA or Ohio State was the best team in the nation. The UPI Top Ten  Ohio State and UCLA had two common opponents in 1954; Cal and USC. Ohio State defeated Cal 21–13 and USC 20–7, while UCLA defeated Cal 27–6 and USC 34–0.