Handicapping a season of "Dancing With The Stars" gets harder as every rule grows an exception. Football guys get close to the end — except Lawrence Taylor. Pretty, inoffensive young women get knocked out early — except Brooke Burke. People without name recognition have no real chance — except Gilles Marini.
There are few reliable rules anymore, so all you can do is look at who has natural advantages and disadvantages. After that, it's anyone's guess how it will play out.
In this extra-large season with its 16-member cast, let's look first at the advantages.
Stage experience: Donny Osmond has spent years doing glittery stage shows like "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." What's more, his crafty partner, Kym Johnson, has brought out the best in an unlikely mix of hams from Jerry Springer to Joey Fatone. Especially with her help, it could work for him.
Musical background: Singers are a mixed bag, with Mel B and Joey Fatone on the high end and Belinda Carlisle and Master P … not so much. But on balance, it's always good to have rhythm, which could help Mya, Macy Gray, and Aaron Carter.
Nostalgia: Melissa Joan Hart has been famous for a long time, spending many years, for better or worse, as a tween star. She's stayed on the radar making cutesy ABC Family movies, and plenty of people know who she is. In many seasons, just having a base to build on is enough to carry you a few weeks while you try to learn to actually dance.
Being an underdog: Lots of people seem like they might be bad dancers, but it takes a certain kind of underdog to capitalize on that quality. This year's most likely candidate? Kelly Osbourne. She's struggled with her weight and her image, she has a weird family, she seems like the world's unlikeliest ballroom dancer, and she's not without flashes of charm as a general matter. If she turns out to have any ability whatsoever, she will seem brilliant just for not falling on her face.
The right athletic skills: Mark Dacascos, who appears on the U.S. version of "Iron Chef," is almost as unknown this year as Gilles Marini was last year, but his real background is in martial arts — and more specifically in martial-arts movies. That could make him a natural fit. Anyone who's done demanding physical choreography is a step ahead of this game.
Interesting combinations: Swimmer Natalie Coughlin is an Olympic athlete, but she's also sort of a babe. And Joanna Krupa is a model, but as she demonstrated on "The Superstars" this summer during a stormy pairing with Terrell Owens, she's also outspoken and sharp-tongued. Those could both turn out to be combinations of traits that might have some extra appeal to audiences.
Two left feetSo who might be at a disadvantage?
Division: You may love or hate Tom DeLay, and you may take those feelings a little more seriously than with an actor or a model. Getting a lot of votes is largely about nursing broad support, not just passionate support. Oddly, this is something DeLay — partnered with two-time champion Cheryl Burke — has in common with Michael Irvin, whose football career and personal life have been controversial. You don't get far being polarizing, as pundit Tucker Carlson learned from his early exit.
Anonymity: While Chuck Liddell has a low profile in the kind of frothy pop culture that often produces "Dancing" contestants, he is a big deal in Ultimate Fighting circles and even hosted a show on Spike, making him not as anonymous as he might seem. Louie Vito, on the other hand, is a snowboarder who only turned pro in 2006. While Vito's partner, Chelsie Hightower, made a silk purse out of the adorable sow's ear that was Ty Murray last season, Vito is even less known, and lacks a famous spouse like Jewel as an entry point.
Representing for moms: Kathy Ireland could be a great dancer, and she'd still be a very unlikely candidate to go far, because women who represent the "mom" demographic — specifically including former models Paulina Porizkova and Rachel Hunter — have had it rough. Leeza Gibbons, Gisele Fernandez, Tia Carrere … even Susan Lucci only finished sixth, and she should have had the most obvious crossover with the "Dancing" audience that one can possibly imagine. This is also likely to be a problem for character actress Debi Mazar, who lands right on the "vaguely familiar" spot that rarely works well for anyone.
Head-scratchers: Ashley Hamilton may be the strangest person to ever be chosen for this show. At least when Gilles Marini was known only for his largely wordless and entirely pantsless turn in "Sex And The City," it was a recent movie. Ashley Hamilton is really only known for having been briefly married to Shannen Doherty years ago. They'll tease the angle that he's the son of former "Dancing" contestant George Hamilton, but in the end, he's not even someone where you'd say, "Who?" He's more someone where you'd say, "Why?"
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com