SYRACUSE, N.Y., OCT. 21 -- About this time of year, as the leaves change colors and the wind blows cold rain through this city, attention normally turns from the Syracuse University football team to the school's basketball team.

But a funny thing has happened this year. The basketball team had its best season ever last season, losing the national championship to Indiana by one point, and the Orangemen are ranked No. 1 by The Sporting News this fall. But no one in this city seems to care, because everyone's excited about the undefeated Syracuse football team.

"A year ago, {the campus newspaper} had a big preview on us," said Syracuse forward Derek Brower. "They couldn't wait for this, they couldn't wait for that."

This year, they can wait. The Syracuse football team, which was picked by few preseason publications to win more than six games, is 6-0 and ranked No. 9 in the country. Last Saturday, the Orangemen defeated Penn State, ranked 10th at the time, 48-21, for the first time since 1970.

"Before, it was always a small group on campus who talked about the football team," said Syracuse offensive tackle Craig Stoeppel. "Now, everybody is talking about football with basketball practice starting. That is unusual."

But the Orangemen are having an unusual season. They're off to their best start since 1959, the year they went undefeated and won the national championship. When they broke into the top 20 this season after defeating Virginia Tech, it was the first time since 1971. Their current ranking is their highest since 1964.

It appears the Orangemen are headed to a bowl on New Year's day. The last major bowl they played in was the Sugar Bowl in 1964, when Floyd Little was in the backfield.

This from a team that was one of the worst in the country against the run in 1986, had an inexperienced offensive line returning and lacked depth at most positions.

"Undoubtedly, we are the Cinderella for 1987," said Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson. "It's just, 'How long are we going to keep this up?' "

Although Syracuse once showcased such great players as running backs Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Larry Csonka and Little, by the time MacPherson arrived in 1980 the program was suffering. In the early 1970s, the administration deemphasized athletics. Ben Schwartzwalder, who had coached the team since 1949, is said to have lost touch with his players. During an era of rebellion, Schwartzwalder, a disciplinarian, placed heavy demands on his players.

In 1970, the team experienced racial problems. Many blacks said they were outcasts and were upset that there wasn't a black assistant coach. In protest, several black players boycotted spring practice. Seven were suspended by Schwartzwalder, who eventually retired in 1973.

Maryland Coach Joe Krivak, then an assistant at Syracuse, said it became difficult for Syracuse to recruit black players the next few years.

Little agreed. "All of the opponents, I'm sure, used that on all of the people Syracuse was trying to recruit," he said.

After Frank Maloney coached the Orangemen to a 32-36 record from 1974 to 1980 and an appearance in the 1979 Independence Bowl, he hired MacPherson, who in his only head coaching job had a 45-27-1 record at the University of Massachusetts. He had been a defensive assistant for the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns.

Although Syracuse had torn down archaic Archbold Stadium after the 1978 season, replaced it with the 50,000-seat Carrier Dome and provided more financial support, MacPherson could only manage a 30-36-1 record until this season.

Before this season, average attendance at the Carrier Dome had been declining. From 1984 to 1986, it dropped from 44,221 to 34,534, in a city that doesn't have another professional or college team. For big games, the basketball team draws capacity crowds of 32,500.

After a 1985 Cherry Bowl appearance against Maryland, the Orangemen lost their first four games in 1986 and finished 5-6. Season ticket-holders and alumni were becoming impatient, but Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel gave MacPherson a vote of confidence.

How did Syracuse go from that point to being a contender for the national championship? One reason is, that up until the Penn State game, the Orangemen played teams with a combined 12-14 record. Of their remaining games (Colgate, Pittsburgh, Navy, Boston College and West Virginia), no team is in the top 20.

Another reason is they have lost only two starters for no more than two games because of injuries, and both were at positions with depth. In addition, the Syracuse offensive line, which has two freshmen and one sophomore starting, has been solid. Freshmen left guard John Flannery and right tackle Turnell Sims and sophomore right guard Blake Bednarz are from MacPherson's heralded recruiting class after the Cherry Bowl.

The Orangemen also have talent and depth at the offensive backfield and receiver positions. Senior quarterback Don McPherson, although inconsistent, is a threat to run and pass. He had the best game of his career against Penn State, throwing for three touchdowns and running for two. His favorite receiver is Tommy Kane, who is averaging almost 22 yards per catch and has six touchdowns. The Syracuse tailbacks, junior Robert Drummond and sophomore Michael Owens, are averaging six yards per carry.

But the player who has perhaps had the most impact for Syracuse is 6-foot-1, 260-pound nose guard Ted Gregory, a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He missed the last 10 games last year with a broken leg, but this season he has 50 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks to lead the sixth-ranked Orangemen defense (244.3 yards per game). It's not unusual to see him double- and triple-teamed.

"Everybody says he's tough," said Syracuse center John Garrett, "but he can back it up. He's just mean. He's a mean son of a gun, Teddy. He's got the perfect attitude for a nose guard. If the offense is stinking up the field, he'll let us know. If somebody on the defense does something stupid, he'll get in his face and tell them. Ted's got a way of getting his point across."

With Gregory leading the way, the Orangemen are beginning to regain some respect. MacPherson is hoping a good recruiting class this year, combined with the one in 1985, will be enough to keep the Orangemen in the top 20 for good.

The victory over Penn State was a step in that direction.

"I'm not surprised we beat Penn State this year," MacPherson said. "I'm surprised at the domination of the game. . . .

"Right now, the recruiting process is much easier. It's fun. Before, you would fight like hell just to keep talking to them. Before, there were people the coaches couldn't talk to. The parents wouldn't let them. Now, they're saying, 'Yes, you can call us Wednesday night at 9:15.' "