For a Syracuse football team that lost three of its first five games, the Cherry Bowl is the living end. The people dressed in orange are warmer here, even in freezing temperatures, than they would be back home.

Syracuse just posted its best record in 18 seasons and a bowl game by any name is a prize worth claiming. A victory over Maryland here Saturday in the Silverdome would make the Orangemen eight-game winners for the first season since 1967.

The opportunity makes for a rare bit of postseason cheer for a team that may well be more fun off the field than on it.

The starting quarterback won't be seen in public, not even in a classroom, without a coat and tie.

The two-time consensus all-America defensive tackle is a part-time artist who was rejected for a Rhodes Scholarship in part because he was honest enough to say he wants to play professional football.

One of the starting wide receivers -- called by some scouts "the next Steve Largent" -- is described by his coach as "a kid who could find a cloud on the sunniest day."

And one defensive back, a slightly-built engineering student, described his helmet this week as "an instrument of death."

The quarterback, sophomore Don McPherson, says, "The whole team is crazy."

Tim Green, who looks like a large-scale version of actor Michael J. Fox, could have become Syracuse's first Rhodes scholar. Want to see his resume'? English literature major, 3.83 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale). Hasn't had anything other than an A since freshman year. Entered Syracuse with 15 hours of advance placement credits. Won a national photography contest in high school. Paints, sculpts. Favorite television show is "Dynasty."

At least he's not perfectly perfect.

But when the Rhodes committee asked if he planned to play in the NFL, Green didn't hedge. A "maybe" might have gotten Green the honor. But he said, absolutely, yes.

"One of the criteria for being a Rhodes scholar supposedly is 'character,' " Green said. "In my case, honesty apparently didn't count for much in their books."

What about football, you ask? Green has 13 1/2 sacks. He's such a good pass rusher, Syracuse has blitzed only twice in two years.

"The guy is so intense on the field he loses all perspective of where he is and who he's with," McPherson said. "In two-a-day practices, everybody gets into little fights on any team. But Tim fights his best friends. I mean, he goes after them. Beats the heck out of them, then he invites them out for pizza afterward. You've got to wonder about a guy like that."

A lot of people at Syracuse, including some of the players, wondered whether they could succeed with Don McPherson at quarterback.

Talent wasn't ever a real question. One high school filed suit against another when he attempted to go to school outside his residential zone.

Smarts weren't a question either. McPherson, a psychology major, is currently writing a paper on violence in sports, which examines his own life and that of his brother Mark, a professional boxer.

And it would be unwise to question McPherson's level of confidence, even though many people wanted him to change positions after injuries ruined his freshman and sophomore seasons. "Did I truly visualize this (season) happening?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes, I did."

What the Orange were concerned about was whether McPherson could come in after three games (when Mike Kmetz stumbled) and efficiently run an offense as complicated as the Syracuse option attack.

In eight starts, McPherson threw 12 touchdown passes and only five interceptions, led the team in rushing with 489 yards (seven touchdowns) and has shown he may be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation by his senior year.

As a high school senior, at West Hempstead (N.Y.), many schools recruited him only as a defensive back or receiver, a common insult for black quarterbacks who have speed.

At Syracuse this season, he accounted for 51 percent of the team's total offense. Coach Dick MacPherson says, "He is an entire offense in itself."

Senior receiver Mike Siano said it was a 25-yard touchdown run off a broken play against Penn State (in a 24-20 loss) that told the offense how explosive Donnie Mac could be.

And Green says, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole, "He is the spark of life."

Donnie Mac is helped considerably by having two receivers who have broken most of the school records held by current Redskin Art Monk.

Scott Schwedes, a baby-faced junior, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, which is also the reason he is the nation's third-best punt returner.

And Siano, who had eight touchdown receptions this season, is the sarcastic senior who loves basketball but not the fact that it's still the game in town and on campus.

It was tough, until recently, for Siano to get many receptions in a run-oriented offense. And the prospect of playing a great run defense like Maryland's made Siano smile, almost, with the prospect of Dick Mac having to pass more.

"Maybe they'll use both pages of the playbook this week," he told one Syracuse writer.

Dick Mac's pride and joy really does seem to be his defense, which comes into Saturday's game ranked fourth against the run. (The offense, for all its talented players, is mediocre.) He loves rugged defensive players, and certainly has one in Jeff Mangram, one of three redshirt freshmen in the defensive backfield.

Mangram, the one who talks about his helmet being "an instrument of death," has categorized his hits: "best hit in high school, best hit in college, best hit against a teammate in practice." Mangram claimed to have hit a receiver so hard he was "de-padded."

All this goes on under a coach who is part Knute Rockne, part Rodney Dangerfield, a man whose job was in jeopardy after five games this season, which included a 30-3 loss to Mississippi State and a 24-14 failure against Virginia Tech.

This is the first trip to a bowl game for Dick Mac, if you don't count the appearance in "The Boardwalk Bowl" when he was coaching Massachusetts.

His team is 7-4, and a victory over Maryland would be cause for monumental celebrating back home. Dick Mac says he finds this whole experience "a joy." And the people here have been saying the same thing about his team.