The game pits a team from Conference USA versus a team from the Sun Belt Conference. From the beginning of the New Orleans Bowl until recently that automatically went to the Sun Belt champion, but since the conference earned a second bid, to the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the bowl now has the first choice of which team to take before the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Since the agreement, the Sun Belt champion has played in that game once. If Conference USA does not have enough bowl eligible teams the bowl will choose an at-large team, which they did in 2011 when Mountain West Conference member San Diego State was picked to play.
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 at 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.