Taking sides: Handicapping 'Idol's' final four

CLINT COOPER: After the replacement of judge Paula Abdul with Ellen Degeneres, the announced retirement of judge Simon Cowell and declining ratings, Season 9 of "American Idol" is now down to four contestants.

What appeared to be the worst group of contestants in the show's history may still be, but the ones who have survived at least have improved since taking their bows in the top 12 two months ago.

Ellen, to me, had a lousy start as a judge, her comments both unhelpful and unfunny, but has rebounded to have both Paula's protective comments about most contestants and, occasionally, some funny comments. I, personally, have felt more disconnected to "Idol" than any year since I began watching in Season 3. It may be the overall lack of talent, the selection of mentors such as Miley Cyrus (puh-leeze!) or the absence of a dynamic contestant like last year's Adam Lambert.

KAREN NAZOR HILL: Having been an Idol fan since its first show nine years ago, I think this is, by far, the worst season. The majority of the talent has been mediocre. And I'm still bitter that Adam Lambert (who I would pick as the all-time best contestant in "American Idol" history) came in second last year.

Even the judges seemed to be bored. Though I am an Ellen Degeneres fan, I don't think she has brought much to the judges' table, and, more importantly, I don't think the contestants have respected her opinions. Have you noticed that Ellen and Kara Dioguardi rarely talk to one another? Simon, though, is still the best of show. Without him next year, I think "American Idol'' will go down the drain.

SUSAN PIERCE: I'm still sulking that they sent Lee University's Jermaine Purifory home in the Hollywood round and kept some of the unmemorable talent that has been inflicted on viewers this season.

I feel like this is the worse season of "Idol" to date. Only last week with the fabulous job Harry Connick Jr. did as mentor -- and arranger and even accompanist -- did I feel like "Idol" had regained some of its mojo.

CLINT: As to the final four contestants, Crystal Bowersox consistently has been the best singer and probably deserves to win for that alone. Although the judges have criticized her recently, none of her songs has been bad. Her voice has both folk and rock-y, Janis Joplin-esque edges. She, like the other three, lacks the charisma of a Lambert or Carrie Underwood, so I wonder which one "Idol" management prefers to win.

Lee Dewyze, to me, has made the biggest improvement through the season. When he was added to the original 24, I thought the judges were crazy because in the limited airtime he'd had, he was lousy. However, if I had to pick the best radio success of the four, it might be him. His growl sounds current.

Early in the season, I said Casey James was a shoo-in for the finals. But his recent uninspired performances and lack of growth have set him back. Michael Lynche is very good every week but never great. And I don't think "Idol" management wants to "elect" the second coming, albeit more pop-y, of Ruben Studdard.

KAREN: I'm with you, Clint. I think Crystal is the most talented of the final four contestants, and she's consistently good. I wonder, though, if she's "American Idol" material. She doesn't seem to be as enthusiastic about winning the title as Lee Dewyze and Michael "Big Mike" Lynche.

For the better part of the season, I predicted Crystal and Casey James would be the final two. I'm now rethinking. I like Casey, and he's good to look at, but he's got as much stage presence as the curtains. Lee and Mike, on the other hand, seem to have fun performing. I began noticing Lee a few weeks ago when he started stepping up to the plate, and Kara Dioguardi certainly raised his confidence last week when she told him he could win it.

But, at this moment, my vote is going to Crystal. She's the only one of the four I really do enjoy week after week.

SUSAN: I believe the final two will be Lee and Crystal. Lee has consistently improved, and he has the voice that would make him immediately recognizable on radio, just like former "Idol" success stories Clarkson, Underwood and Daughtry.

Casey is just eye candy. Just a so-so voice, but he might make a good front man for a country band. "Big Mike" Lynche has a good voice, and I can see him having an R&B career.

Crystal has been the front-runner all season -- and consistently lauded by the judges as such, just like Adam Lambert was last year.

Didn't we all see how well that worked out for Adam?

I predict a repeat of that same underdog type of finish this year and Lee walks off with the "Idol" title.