Since winning promotion in 1996, Derby have finished 12th and ninth. They have been nobody's pushovers and have at times illuminated the top division with the quality of their football.
Saturday's victory revitalised Smith's hopes of improving on last season's 55 points and, perhaps, clinching the place in Europe that eluded them late in the campaign. However, such is the thin line between optimism and fear at the volatile top of the domestic game that he can no more expect to succeed than to feel safe from failure.
"Getting past 30 points is an important landmark," Smith said. Does that mean you can start looking upwards, someone asked. "It does now," Smith responded. "Last week we were looking over our shoulders."
Those backwards glances followed a nine-match sequence in which Derby had lost only twice but also won only twice, enough for them to tumble six places to 11th and give them only seven points more than Blackburn, who are perceived as relegation candidates. Had his side lost, Smith privately feared, the rot might have started to take hold.
It could have happened. In the closing minutes, Nathan Blake missed a header with which four times in five he would score. Moments later, a deep, hanging cross was headed across the Blackburn goal by Dean Sturridge for Burton, slipping between two defenders, to nod home his fifth goal in as many starts.
Burton has been grumbling to Smith that he needs an extended run of matches to show his true worth, rather than the odd glimpse of the talent that earned him a ticket to the World Cup finals with Jamaica. In truth, despite his goal, he did not look the answer to Derby's lack of a consistent scorer and may not hold his place when the suspended Paulo Wanchope returns.
It is this simple shortcoming that makes Derby's future uncertain; simple, but not easily remedied. When Wimbledon are driven to pay pounds 7.5m for an overweight, out-of-form John Hartson, it is not difficult to work out that strikers are in short supply. And there was more evidence right before Smith's eyes in the shape of Ashley Ward, whom Smith sold for pounds 1.3m 16 months ago but is now, according to the deal struck between Blackburn and Barnsley, worth pounds 4.5m.
But needs must. With Chris Sutton injured long-term, Kevin Gallagher slow to recover and Kevin Davies struck down again with the serious throat infection that laid him low before Christmas, Blackburn's forward rota is heavily depleted.
In the circumstances, it is probably not surprising that the players who stood out most at Pride Park were defenders, Stephane Henchoz and Callum Davidson in the visiting colours, Stefan Schnoor, Horacio Carbonari and the excellent Tony Dorigo for Derby.
At 33, Dorigo, the former England full-back rescued by Smith from Torino, might be considered a little long in the tooth to be chasing Premiership attackers, but here not only did he contain Keith Gillespie but also found time to deliver the cross for the winning goal.
Goal: Burton (84) 1-0.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Schnoor; Eranio, Bohinen (Harper, 75), Carsley, Dorigo; Baiano (Kozluk, 84); Sturridge, Burton. Substitutes not used: Hoult (gk), Christie, Elliott.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Filan; Kenna, Henchoz, Broomes, Davidson; Gillespie, Sherwood, McKinlay, Wilcox; Ward, Blake. Substitutes not used: Peacock, Flowers (gk), Croft, Dunn, Duff.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Bookings: Derby: Baiano, Schnoor. McKinlay. Blackburn: Broomes, Kenna.
Man of the match: Dorigo.
Attendance: 27,386.Reuse content