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The game pits a team from the Sun Belt Conference versus a team from the Mountain West Conference. The New Orleans Bowl traditionally hosted the Sun Belt champion when it was the only available bowl for that conference. Now that the Sun Belt has expanded to three bowl games, the New Orleans Bowl has been designated the first choice. If the Mountain West does not have enough bowl eligible teams the bowl will choose an at-large team. From 2002 to 2013, the New Orleans Bowl was affiliated with the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
In 2001, the Sun Belt signed a temporary contract to play against the 5th-ranked team from the Mountain West Conference.
Due to damage by Hurricane Katrina to the Superdome, where the game is usually played, the 2005 game was played on December 20 in Lafayette, Louisiana at Cajun Field on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and was dubbed the New Orleans Bowl at Lafayette. The game returned to the Superdome on December 22, 2006, with a new corporate sponsor in freight company R+L Carriers, renaming the game the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. The game featured Troy, co-champions of the Sun Belt Conference facing Rice, making their first bowl game visit in 45 years, their last appearance being the Bluebonnet Bowl. Troy defeated Rice, 41–17.
The current champions of the New Orleans Bowl are the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns who beat Tulane 24-21 for their third straight victory in this bowl game. Attendance at the 2013 bowl game set a record for the third straight year, making the New Orleans bowl one of the best attended of the non-BCS bowl games in 2013.