The 1972 NCAA University Division football season saw the USC Trojans, coached by John McKay, go undefeated and win the national championship as the unanimous choice of the 50 AP panelists. Eighth-ranked in the preseason, the Trojans were narrowly voted No. 1 in the first AP poll, and stayed out front for the rest of the year.
Prior to the 1972 season, two programs were elevated to the University Division. The new programs were Long Beach State and Tampa. The change brought the total number of programs in the University Division to 121.
During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for the major college football teams in the University Division, which became Division I in 1973 (and Division I-A in 1978). The NCAA Football Guide, however, did note an "unofficial national champion" based on the top ranked teams in the "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The "writers' poll" by Associated Press (AP) was the most popular, followed by the "coaches' poll" by United Press International) (UPI). Through the 1973 season, the UPI issued its final poll in early December before the bowls, but since 1968 (and 1965) the AP Trophy was withheld until the postseason was completed. The AP poll in 1972 consisted of the votes of fifty sportswriters, though not all of them voted in every poll. Those who cast votes would give their opinion of the ten best teams. Under a point system of twenty points for first place, nineteen for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined.
This season was historically significant because it was the first in which freshmen were eligible to play varsity football in the University Division. The NCAA had historically prohibited freshmen from varsity competition, except during the United States involvement in World War II and the Korean War. In 1968, the NCAA allowed freshman eligibility in the University Division in all sports, except football and basketball, and extended the rule to those sports effective with the 1972–73 academic year.
Conference and program changes
This was the last season for the "University" and "College" divisions. For the 1973 season, the NCAA created the three-division structure that exists today with teams and conferences designated accordingly:
Five years later in 1978, Division I was subdivided (for football only) into I-A and I-AA. In 2006, these were renamed Division I FBS and FCS, respectively. Many of the teams and conferences now in FCS (Big Sky, Ohio Valley, SWAC, Yankee) were initially in Division II and moved up to I-AA.
- November 4: No. 1 USC beat Washington State 44–3 in Seattle, and No. 2 Alabama defeated Mississippi State 58–14. No. 3 Nebraska won 33–10 at No. 15 Colorado, No. 4 Michigan won 21–7 at Indiana, and No. 5 Ohio State beat Minnesota 27–19. The top five remained the same.
- November 11: No. 1 USC had the week off. In a matchup of undefeated teams, No. 2 Alabama beat No. 6 LSU 35–21 at Birmingham. No. 3 Nebraska visited Iowa State and played to a 23–23 tie. No. 4 Michigan won 31–0 at Iowa to extend its record to 9–0. No. 5 Ohio State lost 19–12 at Michigan State, and No. 7 Oklahoma beat No. 14 Missouri 17–6 to return to the top five. The next poll featured No. 1 USC, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Oklahoma, and No. 5 Nebraska.
- November 18: No. 1 USC beat No. 14 UCLA, 24–7, and No. 2 Alabama beat Virginia Tech 52–13. No. 3 Michigan got past Purdue 9–6, No. 4 Oklahoma won 31–7 at Kansas, and No. 5 Nebraska beat Kansas State 59–7. The top five remained the same.
- November 25: No. 1 USC and No. 2 Alabama were idle, while No. 3 Michigan (10–0) and No. 9 Ohio State (9–1) met at Columbus to determine the Big Ten title and USC's Rose Bowl opponent. In the fourth installment of "The Ten Year War," Ohio State won 14–11. No. 4 Oklahoma returned the favor of last year's Game of the Century by beating No. 5 Nebraska 17–14 on the road in Lincoln. No. 6 Penn State beat visiting Pittsburgh 49–27 to close its regular season at 10–1. The next poll featured No. 1 USC, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Ohio State, and No. 5 Penn State.
- December 2: No. 1 USC closed its regular season at home with a 45–23 win over No. 10 Notre Dame to finish at 11–0. No. 2 Alabama (10–0), which had already clinched the SEC championship, hoped to do the same as it met No. 9 Auburn (8–1) in their annual Iron Bowl rivalry game in Birmingham. Auburn spoiled perfection, beating Alabama 17–16. No. 3 Oklahoma closed its regular season with a 10–1 record and the Big 8 title after a 38–15 win over No. 20 Oklahoma State. No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Penn State had both finished their regular seasons. The final regular season poll featured No. 1 USC, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Alabama, and No. 5 Penn State.
In 1972, only the Rose Bowl (Big Ten vs. Pac-8) and Cotton Bowl (SWC winner) had rigid conference tie-ins. Thus, Big 8 champion Oklahoma passed up an Orange Bowl invitation to play in the Sugar Bowl against Penn State, while SEC champion Alabama turned down the Sugar to meet No. 7 Texas (which had breezed to the SWC title after its early-season loss to Oklahoma) in the Cotton. For the first time, the Sugar Bowl was played at night on New Year's Eve, rather than New Year's Day afternoon. With two consecutive victories in the Orange Bowl, No. 9 Nebraska was invited to a third against No. 12 Notre Dame.
Sunday, December 31, 1972
Monday, January 1, 1973
The final AP poll in January was: 1. USC (12–0), 2. Oklahoma (11–1), 3. Texas (10–1), 4. Nebraska (9–2–1), 5. Auburn (10–1) 
- Prior to the 1975 season, the Big Ten and Pac-8 conferences allowed only one postseason participant each, for the Rose Bowl.
The Big Eight Conference dominated the Heisman race in 1972, as the top three were from Nebraska and Oklahoma:
- Johnny Rodgers, WB – Nebraska, 1310 points
- Greg Pruitt, RB – Oklahoma, 966
- Rich Glover, MG – Nebraska, 652
- Bert Jones, QB – LSU, 351
- Terry Davis, QB – Alabama, 338
- John Hufnagel, QB – Penn State, 292
- George Amundson, RB – Iowa State, 219
- Otis Armstrong, RB – Purdue, 208
- Don Strock, QB – Virginia Tech, 144
- Gary Huff, QB – Florida State, 138