They have a select number of out-of-conference games, but the bulk of the season is conerence play. I think they have a 12-game schedule, of which two or three are OOC. That leaves nine or ten in-conference. So if they're in a weak conference, there isn't much they can do about that.
Now the same can be said for Ohio State, right? No. They play four, that's right, four out-of-conference games. Now, with 11 teams in the Big Ten, I think it makes sense for the Big Ten to have two out-of-conference games and 10 in-conference (one against each opponent in the conference). I mean, that makes sense, right? So why do they play these weak OOC games against teams like Akron, App State, and Youngstown State? Because they're willing to pony up the money to play the Big Ten in hopes of an upset. Appalachian State paid off this year - look at how much coverage they've had in the media for knocking off Michigan. I'll bet ticket sales went up after that, and they'll schedule I-A teams next year in hopes of an upset; ticket sales will be up next year, and so might recruiting and even the number of students.
I think that one reason why there is so much chaos is because the chaos is allowed to reign. Each conference sets their schedules, their championships, their bowls, etc. I think the NCAA needs to step in and set some guidelines - all teams play same number of games, same number of in-conference games, etc. Unfortunately, the NCAA is pretty much owned by the schools and conferences, and they're not going to let it happen.