I may be the only one without a hungry dog in this fight. Anyone but Julia Roberts winning would be an acceptable outcome for me, and I can't say any one of the other four jump out as more deserving than the others.
Yeah, Julia Roberts. Like dws said, the bloggers and those folks who laughably call themselves critics hopped to when told Roberts was to be considered supporting (had that original "Streep is supporting" feint gone forward, they'd have backed that just as forcibly), and here we are, with the play's dominant character somehow slotted in the lower category. At least Hailee Steinfeld, in a similar situation, gave a particularly memorable performance I didn't mind seeing singled out (I'd have felt the same about Will Forte, had his fraud-attempt paid off). But Roberts does hit-and-miss work, and by me robbed someone more deserving of this slot. And of course she has no shot at winning, making one wonder what the purpose of it all was, beyond Harvey racking up more meaningless points on his board.
My season-long faith in Sally Hawkins paid off on nominations day, but I think that's as far as she goes. The very things that are so good about her performance (the subtlety, above all) will work against her with voters who have shown a taste for broad flash (cf. Melissa Leo).
After that, I think anyone CAN win. I've been pleasantly surprised that, Eric aside, even such a Payne-averse community as this board has mostly responded quite favorably to Nebraska. I've heard, anecdotally, that this is even truer among the (older) Academy set, so, even though the film hasn't made much noise at the Guilds, I think it's not entirely out of the race for its two acting candidates. I definitely rank Squibb third, but the kind of close third that, in tight voting, can slip through just the way flipp describes.
Yes, I think clearly Jennifer Lawrence, without a win last year, would be romping away with this. Popular young star, showing range, third nomination in four years, showy role in major best picture contender -- that's pretty much the package. She's strong enough, in fact, that even the handicap of having won just a year back doesn't rule her out completely, as it would most. I give her a shot at winning.
But the outcome will mostly rest on how voters feel about Lupita Nyong'o -- both her performance and the size of her role, and to some degree her film. I'm somewhat in the middle on the matter of her performance: I think it's a powerful role and she plays it well, though with the proviso one can never be sure how strong an actress' work is when it's the first time one has seen her. But it did strike me as a role on the smallish side (an issue I don't have with June Squibb, though I'm told they have roughly equivalent screen time -- perhaps that's down to how impactful I found each character on her film). Had I felt Nyong'o played a more dominant part in 12 Years' narrative, I might be as enthusiastic as her more avid supporters here. As it is, I'm ambivalent and I imagine alot of voters will be, as well.
And I will say that race may play a part in the voting, for this reason: at a certain point a few months back, this was seen as a landmark year for black performers/creators -- remember when we thought we might have three black supporting actress nominees? When The Butler and Fruitvale Station looked like they might join 12 Years in the best picture race? That narrative already suffered quite a bit on nominations day. But if, at the end of such a year, the only thing we have to show for it is a screenplay win for John Ridley, there might be a bit of embarrassmdent. Of course, 12 Years could still win best picture, which would alleviate lot of this (and probably carry Nyong'o to victory). But, even if that's not the case, I think there are voters who'd consider Nyong'o the best spot in which to make a statement. I'm not saying most voters, or even more than a small number -- but, in what I view as a close race, the few who vote on that basis could provide a winning margin for Nyong'o.