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49ers to kick off Harbaugh era against re-tooled Seahawks

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith knows that his team's opening matchup with Seattle has a little extra weight to it because it is a divisional matchup.

Given that it took only seven victories to win the NFC West last year, a victory in Week 1 could be big for both clubs.

Smith and the 49ers get their season underway against the defending-champion Seahawks this Sunday at Candlestick Park.

The 49ers finished third in the division a season ago with a 6-10 record, but were in the hunt for a division title right up until the season's final weeks thanks to the NFC West's mediocrity. In fact, the Seahawks didn't clinch their seventh playoff berth in 12 seasons until a Week 17 victory over the Rams finished off their 7-9 regular season.

Seattle earned a little bit of vindication by defeating the then-defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the NFC Wild Card round, but were ushered out of the playoffs the following week by the Bears.

A first-place finish didn't stop Seattle head coach Pete Carroll from tinkering with his roster. After the Seahawks pulled off an incredible 284 roster transactions last year, the club has added another 24 players who are in their first season in Seattle.

One of the new faces is quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who takes over for Matt Hasselbeck after the Seahawks parted ways with their all-time leader in wins this offseason.

"I'm excited. We've been working hard throughout training camp, preseason games and now we actually have a real game so we can try to move forward as a new era for the Seahawks," Jackson said.

Seattle could be without two of its new faces in guard Robert Gallery (knee) and wide receiver Sidney Rice (shoulder), with both players questionable and day-to-day.

Expected to contend for the division crown last year, the 49ers instead capped off a disappointing season by firing head coach Mike Singletary prior to the campaign's end. After Jim Tomsula finished up on an interim basis, new general manager Trent Baalke lured Jim Harbaugh away from a successful four-year stint at Stanford to become the 18th head coach in team history.

The former NFL quarterback also has a bit of a surprise starter under center in Smith, who signed a one-year deal to return to the Niners this offseason.

After holding off rookie Colin Kaepernick to earn the starting nod, Smith is ready to begin his quest of shaking the label off "draft bust" from his resume.

"Excited," the top pick of the 2005 draft said of his emotions for the game. "This is a huge game. I mean they are all huge games. This is number one. This starts it off. It's a division game at home. Seattle coming down, a lot at stake and excited for it. I'm excited for the challenge."

In addition to the returning Frank Gore and Vernon Davis, the 49ers will also debut another new weapon in wide receiver Braylon Edwards, while linebacker Patrick Willis returns to lead the defense.

SERIES HISTORY

The Seahawks hold a slight 13-11 edge in their all-time series with San Francisco, with the teams having split the home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons. Seattle cruised to a 31-6 rout of the 49ers at Qwest Field during Week 1 of the 2010 campaign, with San Francisco turning the tables with a 40-21 home victory in December. The Niners also topped the Seahawks by a 23-10 count at Candlestick Park in 2009, ending a string of two consecutive Seattle wins there.

Though this will be the first time they'll be facing one another in the NFL, Harbaugh Carroll went head-to-head three times in the college ranks when the former was at Stanford and the latter at USC. Harbaugh's Cardinal won two of those games, including a 24-23 upset of the then-No. 2 ranked Trojans in 2007 that snapped USC's 35-game home win streak.

Carroll, once San Francisco's defensive coordinator from 1995-96, is 2-1 against his one-time employer as a head coach. The first of those victories came in 1998, when he was then in charge of the New England Patriots.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

With Hasselbeck's 10-year stay with Seattle over, Jackson (341 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT with Vikings) begins his stint as the No. 1 signal-caller. The 28- year-old made 12 of his 20 career starts back in 2007 and struggled during his stay with Minnesota. One thing that will make his transition to the Seahawks easier is the fact that the club's new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, comes from coaching Jackson in the same role with Minnesota. Jackson could have a familiar target in Rice (17 receptions, 2 TD with Vikings) unless his injury prevents him from playing. Ben Obomanu could start in Rice's place along with Mike Williams (65 receptions, 2 TD), the team's top receiver from a year ago. Seattle also signed tight end Zach Miller (60 receptions, 5 TD) this offseason and he will make his debut. The absence of Gallery at left guard could be huge given that the Seahawks are expected to start a pair of rookies on the right side in guard John Moffitt and tackle James Carpenter. Running back Marshawn Lynch (573 rushing yards, 6 TD) is likely to play after missing a large part of the preseason with an ankle injury.

The 49ers ranked just 24th versus the pass last year, so the club brought in several new faces while also parting ways with linebackers Manny Lawson and Takeo Spikes, cornerback Nate Clements and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Isaac Sopoaga (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will start in the middle of San Francisco's front-three next to 2010 Pro Bowl end Justin Smith (70 tackles, 8.5 sacks), who matched his career high in sacks last year. Willis (128 tackles, 6 sacks) is a Pro Bowl mainstay and San Francisco's best player on defense, while Navarro Bowman (46 tackles) and Ahmad Brooks (31 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) will replace Spikes and Lawson, respectively. Carlos Rogers (54 tackles, 2 INT with Redskins) also joins the secondary as Clements' replacement, as does signed strong safety Donte Whitner (140 tackles, 1 INT with Bills).

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

More than a few thought that Smith's time in San Francisco was over following the end of last season, but he is back for another year. Smith (2370 passing yards, 14 TD, 10 INT) will be glad to have Gore (853 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 5 total TD) back behind him after the running back missed the final five games last year because of a broken hip before signing a contract extension this offseason. Edwards (53 receptions, 7 TD) will look to be the playmaker that the Niners are still hoping Michael Crabtree can become. It is unknown if Crabtree (55 receptions, 6 TD) will play in this game after practicing for the first time this offseason on Wednesday due to a foot injury. Davis remains the club's most consistent contributor in the passing game. He has started all 16 games in each of the past three seasons and led the 49ers last year with 56 receptions, 914 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Center Jonathan Goodwin is the new face on the line after spending his previous two seasons with the Saints.

Just two players remain from Seattle's 2005 Super Bowl team and both are on defense: linebacker Leroy Hill and cornerback Marcus Trufant (80 tackles, 1 INT). Hill spent all of last year on injured reserve as Seattle ranked 27th overall on defense and he replaces David Hawthorne on the outside. Hawthorne (106 tackles, 1 INT) is expected to replace the released Lofa Tatupu at the middle, but is questionable due to a knee injury. Rookie K.J. Wright could go in his place. The defensive line will be bolstered by the return of the 323- pound Red Bryant (18 tackles, 1 sack) who was a big part of the club's early success versus the run before missing the last nine games due to injury. Chris Clemons (49 tackles) notched a career-best 11 sacks at the "Leo" spot last year. Former CFL corner Brandon Browner is listed as the starting right corner on the depth chart, while Kam Chancellor (23 tackles, 1 sack) will replace Lawyer Milloy at the starting strong safety position next to second-year man Earl Thomas (76 tackles, 5 INT).

KEYS TO THE GAME

A fast start could be key for the 49ers, who scored 34 points on their first offensive possessions of the game in 2010. That was tied for the sixth most in the NFL a season ago.

Seattle's offensive line versus Justin Smith. If Gallery can't go, the Niners would be wise to attack the left side of Seattle's line, which would feature Paul McQuistan in Gallery's place. Offensive line coach Tom Cable would have something else to worry about other than his two rookies on the right side.

The Seahawks must also find a way to stop the healthy Gore, who has totaled almost 1,000 yards in 10 career games versus them. Seattle has bent at times versus Gore, who owns a pair of 200-yard rushing games in this series but has scored just four touchdowns.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The 49ers don't enter this season with as high expectations and that could be a good thing. The Seahawks are the ones with the target on their back and are playing with a chip on their shoulder after sneaking into the postseason last year. Yet another roster overhaul by Carroll may backfire early due to the lockout limiting how much time the new faces were able to spend in the system, while San Francisco will benefit by having a familiar face under center. Smith's redemption path gets off to a good start this weekend.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Seahawks 13