The BYU Cougars were voted national champions in 1984. In the their opening game in 1985, they faced UCLA. The Bruins won 27-24. It was the first win for the Bruins as the headed towards the Pac-10 conference championship and appearance in the 1986 Rose Bowl.
The BYU Cougars were the 2nd place team in the WAC. They had lost to Colorado State in October. They were still in the hunt, but a 10-3 loss to San Diego State on November 29, 1986 gave SDSU the WAC conference championship lead.
The UCLA Bruins were tied for 2nd in the Pac-10. The ASU Sun Devils had beaten UCLA in Los Angeles. This gave them the tiebreaker for the Pac-10 championship. UCLA was still in the race, and could have been the Pac-10 champion, but a tie with Washington and a loss to Stanford put them behind the Sun Devils.
With Arizona State clinching the Pac-12 championship and 1987 Rose Bowl early, there began a scramble by the bowls to make deals with schools before the official date. The Fiesta Bowl and Citrus Bowl scrambling to host a #1 versus #2 showdown between Miami and Penn State, the Cotton Bowl struck an agreement to take the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game.
The weather was overcast and 68 degrees. The first two Freedom Bowls had only sold 31,000 tickets, but this one had an advance sale of 42,000. The attendance of 51,422 was the Freedom Bowl record. The 1992 Freedom bowl featuring USC and Fresno State was expected to surpass it, but had an attendance of 50,745.