New coaching staff, new-look defense, alleged new attitude in San Francisco.

Same old quarterback conundrum in San Francisco.

The Jim Harbaugh reign has begun, and the former Stanford head coach has brought two coordinators with him from the college ranks. The new coaching staff can’t hurt a team that often looked lost and confused under Mike Singletary (and Mike Nolan before him). And while a lot of fans are probably infuriated with a team that left $15 million in cap space on the table while letting veteran contributors Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, Travis LaBoy and David Baas leave via free agency, at least the new faculty is making an effort to put a fresh stamp on an organization that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.

The problem, in addition to the fact that they now have a slew of question marks learning new schemes in a short time period, is that they once again failed to adequately address the problem behind center.

It’s hard to believe Alex Smith is now entering his seventh season in San Fran. The former No. 1 overall pick can’t be labelled a bust until the Niners give up on him as a franchise quarterback, but that has yet to happen despite Smith’s 71.2 career passer rating. He takes too many sacks and throws too many picks, but on the bright side, Smith has never had a head coach with an offensive background, he’s never had a truly competent coaching staff in general, and he’s never had quality complements on offense or defense.

He may or may not have some of those pieces in place this year, but with Andrew Luck applying what must feel like voodoo pressure from 15 miles down the 101 at the Stanford campus, it’s now or never for Alex Smith.

2010 in a nutshell: Despite an 0-5 start, they still¬†finish just a game back of first place in the NFC West. It isn’t because they experience some sort of remarkable turnaround. It’s because the division sucks that much. They wind up with a 6-10 record to cap their eighth non-winning season in a row.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Colin Kaepernick will make some starts: Smith is the best quarterback on the roster, but the Niners don’t appear as though they’ll compete anyway and Smith is bound to have problems, so I’m guessing Harbaugh gives the rookie a shot at some point later in the year. Why is Smith bound to have problems? His only good wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, is a head-case with injury problems, and there’s no telling what Braylon Edwards will do. The quarterbacks have no reliable options beyond Vernon Davis, and veteran running back Frank Gore is about to hit a wall. This offense was 24th in the league in points scored last year — I can’t see them improving much on that this season.

2. The offensive line will improve drastically: The line made too many mistakes and surrendered far too many sacks last year, but the unit should benefit from the maturation of second-year starters Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Davis has the ability to make big strides in his sophomore season and Iupati is already turning into a star. Former Saint Jonathan Goodwin, signed as a free agent earlier this month, should provide an upgrade next to Iupati and Adam Snyder in the middle, and left tackle Joe Staley is healthy again after missing seven games with a fractured fibula last year.

3. They’ll miss Aubrayo Franklin: In fact, they’ll miss a few defenders who helped them finish 2010 with the league’s second-lowest opponent rushing average. Franklin, Lawson and Spikes leave holes in the front seven. The team thinks that unproven and/or failed starters Isaac Sopoaga, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks can step in and soften the blow, but that won’t be an easy task. Fortunately for the Niners, they replaced Clements with the solid Carlos Rogers while improving the secondary broadly by signing Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams.

The final word(s): We’ve said it a thousand times before and we’ll say it a thousand times again: the NFC West sucks. As long as that’s the case, it’s impossible to rule the Niners out. But the Rams are still much better, and the Seahawks and Cardinals might have edges as well. San Fran won’t win more than six games in 2011.