Starting next season, all Division I-A football teams will be able to schedule 12 regular season games. This change has been experimented with in on-again, off-again fashion over the last couple years, and teams that schedule a trip to Hawaii do not have that counted against their total, which is why 12-game schedules are not a completely new phenomena. But next year, the dozen-game slate will be permanent. The Big Ten ought to seize the moment to expand the conference schedule.
The league presently plays eight conference games, meaning their teams will have two rivals off the schedule each year. While other conferences (ACC, SEC & Big 12) miss three rivals, those conferences do make their member schools play each team within their own division and it ensures the integrity of the divison champ. Since the Big Ten does not have divisional play, the schedule structure does damage the quality of the championship race.
Missing two opponents out of a possible ten is a lot. This is to miss 20 percent of the overall competition. If you think this isn't a large number, try telling your boss you plan on missing one work day a week and that it won't impact the quality of your job. Because that is the equivalent of what the Big Ten is trying to do.
Under an eleven-game schedule, and with an unwieldy 11-team/one division structure the league's options were limited. Conference teams need the luxury of being able to schedule both a cupcake win, and the elite programs need to be able to schedule a significant national game to enhance their chances in the BCS standings. But even here, the Big Ten has more flexibility then most other leagues. Very few conference teams have a quality non-conference foe that is a major rival. Games like Florida-Florida State and Notre Dame-USC are de facto conference games for those schools, in that ADs would face a public outcry if they tried to eliminate them. Offhand, Iowa-Iowa State, Michigan State-Notre Dame and Purdue-Notre Dame are the only such games involving Big Ten schools (the Irish have not always played Michigan, and next year will play Penn State). So the conference schools only need a bare minimum of flexibility in constructing their national schedules.
The league should certainly use the additional game to add a 9th Big Ten contest. And they should look seriously at cutting the non-conference slate to two games and having their teams play all ten of their rivals. Then when it's time to predict the conference race, we can start focusing on who has the best football team, rather then who's getting the biggest break on the schedule.