The Emmy ballot was released yesterday, which means it's that time of year for Fienberg and I to spend the next week or so moving through a bunch of major categories and analyzing them in two different ways. As always, Dan will attempt to rank the contenders from most likely to least likely to be nominated, throwing in a bunch of preferential wild cards along the way. And, as always, I will pretend that I am an actual Academy member who has a ballot and therefore has to narrow his choices down to six people.

Same rules apply: we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can't nominate people who didn't submit themselves (like Charles Dance from "Game of Thrones"), and we have to consider people in the category they submitted themselves for, even if that means supporting actors submitting as leads (Rob Lowe, every year) or vice versa (Amy Schumer as supporting for a show that's named after her).

We're starting off with the candidates for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. Dan's exhaustive analysis is embedded below, and my picks are coming right up.

I love this category.

I hate this category.

Year after year, there are just too many excellent, award-worthy performances, more than in any other category on the ballot. Because there are so many good-to-great ensemble dramas on TV right now, and because the writing for those shows tend to favor the male characters, it's always an embarrassment of riches. Each year, I go through the ballot to jot down the names of anyone I'd even consider for the category, even ones I suspected didn't have a chance of making my top 6. This year, I came up with 31 names, and that was leaving off fine actors like Alan Cumming, or performances on shows I just don't watch, or shows I didn't watch enough of to feel comfortable (I'm sure John Noble was great as always, but I think I saw three "Fringe" episodes all season).

Consider this potential list of nominees for a second: former winner Peter Dinklage, for bringing his usual humanity and wit and power to playing "Game of Thrones" imp Tyrion Lannister; Walton Goggins for being the enormous bundle of charisma that is "Justified" antagonist Boyd Crowder; Corey Stoll for stealing "House of Cards" out from under Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright with his vulnerability and recklessness; Vincent Kartheiser for continuing to find the empathetic side of Pete Campbell; Noah Emmerich for the complex moral shadings and sneaky physicality of "The Americans" cop-turned-spy Stan Beeman; and Guillermo Diaz for going to town with the great "Scandal" role Shonda Rhimes has given him.

That would be an outstanding collection of nominees. I would feel happy to see each and every one of them on the actual Emmy list.

And not a single one of them made my fictional cut.

That's how brutal this category is. My actual top 6 doesn't include them, nor does it include the likes of John Slattery or Steve Zahn or any of a number of great "Boardwalk Empire" supporting players. I cannot say a word against any of them; I just — after spending a long time shuffling my top 12 around — decided I liked my own 6 a tiny fraction more.

No Emmy nomination would make me happier than to see "Southland" co-star Michael Cudlitz make the final list. No acting win would feel more deserving, despite the great work being done all over TV. The work he did throughout the five seasons of "Southland" — and particularly in this last season, as his Officer John Cooper was put through Hell in a way he ultimately couldn't survive — was astonishing. It was the sort of work a journeyman actor like Cudlitz dreams of getting the chance to do, and he delivered beautifully. Given how few people watched "Southland," and that the show exists below Emmy's radar (other than for its stunt work, where it won last year), I'm not optimistic he'll actually make the cut. But watch his work this year, especially in scenes opposite Gerald McRaney, and try to tell me he doesn't belong at the front of the line.

I firmly believe Dinklage is the only "Thrones" actor with a shot at being nominated — not only this year but going forward. It's too much of a show outside the wheelhouse of Emmy voters, and that it's gotten major nominations at all — and that Dinklage won this in a year when Aaron Paul wasn't eligible — is remarkable (if deserved). But I think the Emmy voters have and will continue to have their limits with this show, which means that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is an extreme longshot for his work as Jaime Lannister, even though it was one of the show's very best performances (possibly the best) this season. Obviously, Coster-Waldau had a lot to work with as Jaime was humbled by circumstance and forced to reflect on a reputation he's never especially wanted. But he made the most of that material, especially in the hot tub confession, but throughout all his scenes opposite Gwendoline Christie's Brienne of Tarth. Jaime was a character I outright despised throughout the first season; he's now someone I'm genuinely glad to see whenever Coster-Waldau comes on screen.

Aaron Paul has won this award the last two years he was eligible, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see him win again — not just because Emmy voters are complacent, but because the guy is great. The most recent stretch of "Breaking Bad" was Jesse-light at times, but when Paul was given material to play — say, Jesse's reaction to what went down during the train heist, or when Walt came to his house — he reminded us once again of why the show has kept him around even though Jesse was originally designed as a plot device who'd be killed in the first season. I'm an awards show socialist, and would rather see the wealth in this category be shared, but if Paul wins again, he'll be completely deserving.

With Giancarlo Esposito no longer eligible to be nominated for "Breaking Bad," his former henchman Jonathan Banks would fit very comfortably in his place. Banks has always been terrific as the weary, uber-competent Mike Ehrmantraut, but the structure of the show only gave him so much to do so long as Gus was around. This year, as an incredibly reluctant partner of Walt and Jesse's, Banks got much more to do, and was able to give even more shading to this complicated, pragmatic man who knew he was being an idiot in going back to work with Walter White, but felt he had no better options.

Given the dominance of "Homeland" at last year's Emmys, perhaps the most surprising snub then was Mandy Patinkin not even being nominated for his work as Saul "The Bear" Berenson. While "Homeland" season 2 as a whole was erratic, Patinkin was its steady, brilliant constant. He got more screen time, more emotional material (particularly in the prison visit and in the finale) and provided a sense of reassurance every time the story cut away from Carrie or Brody to show what Saul was up to. Plus, if he wins, perhaps he might sing a bit in his acceptance speech, which would thrill Fienberg and others to no end. 

Of the men listed above, Cudlitz and Paul both have an argument to be submitted in the lead category. Their character's names, however, aren't in the title of their shows the way Mads Mikkelsen's is with "Hannibal." There are episodes where he's played second fiddle to Hugh Dancy's Will Graham, and then others where he is clearly the star of the show. But I can only work with the names on the list, even if it's a category cheat, and Mikkelsen is riveting. He's playing a character who was an Oscar-winning icon, then a self-parody, then so oft-imitated elsewhere that he seemed to lose all cultural currency. And he's found a way to make Dr. Lecter feel fresh and new and not remotely like a bad imitation of Anthony Hopkins (or Brian Cox). The cool minimalism of the performance is hypnotic, and a big reason why "Hannibal" has become one of the best shows almost no one is watching.

Others considered: Emmerich, Dinklage, Goggins, Stoll, Kartheiser, Diaz, Slattery, Zahn,   Max Burkholder, Bobby Cannavale, Charles Esten, Larry Hagman, Freddie Highmore, Ryan Hurst, Jack Huston, Joshua Malina, Dean Norris, Jacob Pitts, Norman Reedus, Michael Shannon, Dax Shepard, John Slattery, Ulrich Thomsen, Sam Waterston, Jeremy Allen White, Michael Kenneth Williams

What does everybody else think? Who would be on your fictional ballot?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com