The absence of The Sopranos from this year's Emmy derby extends to members of the voting Academy an offer they can't refuse: Look harder to find new nominees... or else!

Since Emmy rules state that only programs airing between June 2001 and May 2002 are eligible, HBO's mob hit — which saw its fourth season delayed until September — is out of the running. And if you go by the show's 2001 haul, a whopping 22 drama slots suddenly are up for grabs. (Ballots are mailed the week of June 3; nominations are announced July 18.)

"It'll force the Academy to cast a wider net," offers Cynthia Littleton of The Hollywood Reporter. Adds John Wells, producer of NBC's ER, The West Wing and Third Watch: "I think it will open things up... which is always a good thing."

In particular, expect new blood in the best actress contest, which for the last three years has basically been a two-person race between Sopranos stars Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco. "We could see [Buffy the Vampire Slayer's] Sarah Michelle Gellar make the cut," notes Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys. Alias badass Jennifer Garner is another possibility, as is Felicity grad Keri Russell. Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham will duke it out on the comedy side.

Of course, O'Neil says you'd have to be without a pulse not to realize that "Six Feet Under will take over as the new Emmy darling." In fact, he believes HBO's cemetery soap will emerge as "the frontrunner to win."

Suggests Littleton: "I think part of the reason [the network held back The Sopranos] was to not make it quite as competitive a field for Six Feet Under." An HBO spokesperson denies this, insisting the postponement was a production issue.

Whatever the case, Six Feet Under may still face stiff competition in the best drama category from CBS's forensics powerhouse CSI, which some also view as a shoo-in. "I was surprised last year when CSI wasn't nominated," admits O'Neil, "given that it was the hot new kid on the block."

In other words, expect the 2002 Emmys to be a dead heat.