2023 Conference USA college football preview, part 1

Editor's note: This story was updated in late July to reflect the latest projections and changes to teams and rosters.

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the NCAA's biggest schools spent years wrangling and arguing, primarily over television revenue, how much of it the more football-obsessed schools could make, and whether said schools could break apart from the riff-raff to some degree. Time is a flat circle in that regard.

Eventually, Division I split into 1-A and 1-AA (now FBS and FCS) for football, and from a peak of 145 teams in 1977, 1-A's membership had nearly sunk to double digits by the late 1980s.

That number soon started to rise again, however. It was back up to 111 by 1996, when Boise State, Idaho, UAB and UCF all joined (or rejoined) the fray. It was 120 by 2009, then 130 by 2017. Even in an era in which writers and school administrators both talk about power-conference football programs breaking away from the pack -- as they did 40 years ago -- said membership continues to climb.

James Madison made it 131 teams last fall and did so in rousing fashion, going 8-3 in a tough Sun Belt right out of the gate. Now we stand at a frisky 133, welcoming Sam Houston and Jacksonville State to the FBS party. Next fall, Kennesaw State, aka No. 134, joins as well. Get the WAC/A-Sun up here, and we'll be back to 145 in no time! The more, the merrier!

It makes sense to start the 2023 college football season preview with the newbies, doesn't it? Both Rich Rodriguez's JSU Gamecocks and KC Keeler's SHSU Bearkats join a Conference USA in transition; after watching six of its programs leave for the American Athletic Conference (which itself lost three teams to the Big 12), C-USA added two FBS newcomers and two former independents in Liberty and New Mexico State. That makes 29 of 133 current FBS teams -- nearly one quarter of them! -- who have at least briefly resided in Conference USA. What a world we live in.

The four newcomers will go up against five incumbents (Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Western Kentucky) this fall. In this two-part preview, we'll talk about the new schools this week and the holdovers next week.

Vacation's over! It's time to prep for 2023!

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division or conference from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.