COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers will enter the 2012 season with lofty expectations for the first time in years. The team that was just one play from the Super Bowl less than a year ago now has a bull's-eye on its back after becoming one of the surprise teams of the NFL in 2011.
But the 49ers aren't a fluke. The talented group from the Bay Area has elevated goals, and will look to build on the things that got them to this point. Defense, a sound running game and game management were all strengths last season.
Moving forward, the question is whether or not they can build on their success in an ultra-competitive league. Here are the five biggest questions for the 49ers as they head into Week 1 of the 2012 regular season:
1. Will the Defense Live up to Its New Reputation?
The 49ers' defensive unit earned its pay in 2011 by ranking as the No. 1 defense in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, rushing touchdowns allowed per game and total turnovers. By returning all 11 of their starters, the 49ers will try to maintain their reputation as a fearsome group.
They've been compared to the '85 Chicago Bears, and rightly so. If they continue to resemble that historic defensive squad, then the 49ers will be among the most dangerous teams in the NFL in 2012.
2. Will Alex Smith and the Offense Take the Next Step?
Alex Smith took a major step forward in 2011, both from a numbers standpoint and as a leader. He had an epic performance in the playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints that sent the team to the NFC Championship game and had the best statistical regular season of his career.
He threw for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns, and posted a 90.7 QB rating, all career-highs against just five interceptions. In order to build on such respectable numbers, the next step will be to put together a Pro Bowl-caliber year and lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Those are high expectations for a quarterback who's never been able to get comfortable or have any continuity in San Francisco. Can he deliver?
3. Will Randy Moss be a Contributor?
One of the reasons Smith has struggled so mightily in the past has been the lack of consistent threats around him. Randy Moss, despite the risk involved with bringing him in, can provide that true No. 1 receiving threat that Smith has never had .
Apparently, Moss has been on his best behavior throughout camp and has done all the right things in terms of putting in work. Whether he actually does it when it matters remains to be seen. With a one-year contract, he's relatively low-risk, but he could pay huge dividends if he becomes anything close to the elite receiver he once was.
4. Is Jim Harbaugh a Great Head Coach?
Jim Harbaugh couldn't have asked for a better year during his first stint as an NFL head coach. The team's 13-3 record and NFC Championship appearance were more than even he could have expected when he was tasked with leading the 49ers out of mediocrity in the NFC West.
With the team's lack of continuity over the last decade, it's now time for Harbaugh to prove that the team can be consistent year to year. 2012 will be his first test in doing so.
5. Will Frank Gore Hold Up?
As Frank Gore inches closer to age 30, the effectiveness of the 49ers' 29-year-old inspirational leader will dwindle. Fortunately, the team has been proactive and signed Brandon Jacobs to pound the ball in goal line situations and drafted LaMichael James out of Oregon to take some of the heavy workload from Gore.
Still, Gore will be the team's heart and soul and workhorse on the ground yet again. He needs to play well for the running game to sustain drives and win games. The 49ers were eighth in the league in rushing yards in 2011 with 1,226 and third in attempts.
Gore will have to do some more heavy lifting for the 49ers to succeed in 2012.
Michael C. Jones is a Yahoo! Featured Contributor in Sports and covers the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL. He has written for Southern California's Press-Enterprise and is the Editor of Sports Out West.
You can follow him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets.