In his first season in Tempe, head coach John Cooper had taken an Arizona State team still stinging from a 5-6 season to eight wins and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. With several key starters returning, the expectations were sky-high entering the 1986 season.
The end result was even better.
It began with a tightly contest non-conference showdown against Michigan State. The Spartans had shutdown ASU's offense in a 12-3 win to open the 1985 season, but the Sun Devils exacted revenge by holding on for a 20-17 win.
A resounding 30-0 blasting of SMU set up a home date against Washington State. ASU was in position to move to 3-0, but five interceptions from quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst undid those hopes, and the game ended in a 21-21 tie.
Undaunted, Van Raaphorst and the rest of the Sun Devils shook off the setback and returned to their winning ways.
ASU won their next five games, including an impressive three-game streak in which they topped UCLA, Oregon and USC, all on the road. By doing so, the Sun Devils became the first Pac-10 squad to pull off a road sweep of the Los Angeles schools.
The most significant win occurred on November 8th, when ASU hosted Cal. The Sun Devils' Rose Bowl bid got a huge boost earlier in the day when UCLA lost to Stanford, and fifth-ranked ASU just needed a win over the 1-7 Bears to punch their Pasadena ticket.
Van Raaphorst wasted little time in carving up the Bears. He found tight end Jeff Gallimore for the game's first touchdown early in the first quarter, then hit Bruce Hill for a score to put ASU up 14-0. Running back Channing Williams had a short touchdown run to open the second quarter, before Hill hauled in a 62-yard bomb to ensure the route was on just minutes before the half.
But Hill was not done.
The speedy New Jersey native took the second half kickoff, cut to the sideline and raced 94 yards for the first ASU kick return touchdown since the legendary Mike Haynes in 1974.
When the carnage was over, ASU had a 49-0 win, a Pac-10 title, and some amazing New Year's Day plans.
However, there were still two games left on the regular season schedule, not to mention a shot at the national title.
An easy 52-6 win over Wichita State put ASU at 9-0-1 heading into their Territorial Cup match-up in Tucson against Arizona. The Sun Devils had moved up to No. 4 in the polls, while the Wildcats came into the game at No. 14. Implications abounded.
Much like their earlier tie to Washington State, turnovers ended up costing ASU dearly.
The Wildcats were able to capitalize on a pair of first half turnovers by ASU to take a 14-10 lead at the break. While Van Raaphorst's arm helped to keep ASU in the game with 437 yards, it also ended up costing the Sun Devils. A fourth quarter pass was picked off by UofA safety Chuck Cecil in the endzone, and Cecil ran untouched 106 yards for the backbreaking score in the 34-17 Wildcat win.
Despite missing out on a national title shot, ASU still had their first ever Rose Bowl game to play, and they faced a stern challenge in Big Ten champion and fourth-ranked Michigan.
The Wolverines jumped out to a 15-3 second quarter lead, but a late first half rally that was capped by a Van Raaphorst-to-Hill four-yard touchdown pass cut the Sun Devils' deficit to 15-13.
In the second half, the relentless Sun Devil defense rose to the occasion. They harassed Michigan quarterback Jim Harbuagh, who tossed three interceptions on the day, and kept the Wolverines off the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, Van Raaphorst connected with Hill once again to take ASU's first lead, and a fourth quarter field goal by ASU's Kent Bostrom pushed the score to the eventual final of 22-15.
The Sun Devils had won the "Granddaddy of Them All", which marked what many still consider the program's high point.
In all, five Sun Devils earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors: WR Aaron Cox, DE Skip McClendon,G Randall McDaniel, LB Scott Stephen, and OT Danny Villa, who always was named a consensus All-American.