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Why 2016 is an Important Year for Notre Dame Football

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff are putting together another nice recruiting class. The 2017 group currently checks in at No. 6 on 247 Sports’ Composite Team Rankings. Each of the past three classes (2014-16) were similar, ones filled with solid players that are capable of producing at the top FBS level.

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But there is something missing in this year’s recruiting class; something that has been missing since the 2014 cycle. While the Irish have been successful in getting quality depth, they have been light on the landing the elite prospects. It is true that recruiting rankings are inexact. But it is also a well-documented fact that perennial national contenders like Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, and now Clemson land at least a couple of top-50 prospects every cycle.

Since 2014 — including the class of 2017 — Notre Dame has brought in just two prospects that have been ranked in 247’s Composite Top 50: quarterback Brandon Wimbush at No. 45 in 2015 and offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer, the nation’s No. 27 overall prospect on the most recent National Signing Day.

This past February, Notre Dame came very close to landing two big difference-makers in Georgia wide receiver Demetris Robertson and California linebacker Caleb Kelly. But in the end, both went in other directions and the Irish again came up short.

So what can Notre Dame do to enhance its standing with the best of the best? How can the Irish get these players that can push them into the upper echelon of college football on a regular basis? Simply put: win, win and win some more.

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Since arriving at Notre Dame, Kelly has done a good job of solidifying a program that had endured many deep valleys. With at least eight wins every season, he has raised expectations. The question going into each season now is which bowl will Notre Dame play in and not if the Irish will make the postseason at all.

But last year’s appearance in the Fiesta Bowl provides Notre Dame with an opportunity. Only once since 1995 has Notre Dame gone to major bowl game two years in a row. The Irish played in the Fiesta Bowl and then the Sugar Bowl following the first two seasons of the Charlie Weis era in 2006-06.

Despite the fact that the Irish lost both of those games, Notre Dame parlayed those bowl bids into a 2008 recruiting class that was among the best in America and featured five-star prospects like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Dayne Crist. To Weis’ credit, he was able to keep that class together despite a disastrous 2007 campaign. But he was not able to build off the success and his failures in 2008 and ‘09 led to his ouster.

What Kelly has going for him is a roster that could be good in 2016 but may be even better next season. Barring a rash of early departures, Notre Dame will return a bulk of its current roster next year and despite a stiffer schedule, the Irish should again be a major bowl contender in 2017.

But first things first. This season has to be a success and that doesn't mean College Football Playoff or bust. Another major bowl appearance will allow Notre Dame to take another step forward. A victory in that major bowl – something Notre Dame hasn’t accomplished since the 1994 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M – would make that step seem more like a leap.

Achieving those goals may not have a great impact on the class of 2017 as the only top-50 player that Notre Dame still has a reasonable shot at landing is 247’s overall No. 1 prospect Foster Sarell, a big lineman from the state of Washington. But it would give a jolt to the Irish’s already impressive 2018 class and the classes that will follow, allowing them a better opportunity at signing the elite prospects that have eluded them in recent years.

An 8-5 or 9-4 season would not be a killer for Notre Dame football by any means. What it would do is keep the Irish in the status quo as a team that is perceived as good with a chance at popping once every few years. But another double-digit win season that ends with a New Year’s Six bowl or even better, a spot in the College Football Playoff, could give the program the type of momentum it hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.